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Top Tech Trends for 2009 Part I: Televisions

The first in a series on what we can expect from technology this year and beyond.

By Barry Myers

The overall impact of the economic crisis on the tech industry is itself a hot topic among tech fans these days. Since there are no industries that can completely avoid the downturn, you can be sure that the consumer tech category is feeling the pinch too. This is especially true when you consider that the profit margins in this highly competitive sector are already razor thin.

That said, there is a theory that the consumer tech industry may be hurt less in a recession because, as consumers shy away from expensive vacations, home renovations, or new automobiles, they may opt to spend on more affordable products that bring enjoyment and entertainment on a daily basis, like a new TV, entertainment center or desktop computer.
In this series, we are going to take a look at the trends for the major consumer tech categories over the next few months and see what we might be able to get for our hard-earned dollars. Let’s begin by taking a look at what’s in store for the TV.

Bigger, thinner, cheaper? No, not yet, yes.

The mantra for the television industry over the last few years has been bigger, thinner, cheaper. Of these three, only cost is likely to be the big storyline for 2009. Prices on flat panel plasma and LCD TVs will continue to drop, which is good news in the current economic climate.

On the other hand, bigger and thinner won’t be the headlines for this year. For the time being, TVs are about as big and flat as consumers want and manufacturers can produce.

Several big brands like Sony, LG, and Panasonic did show some truly amazing, paper thin screens at this month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but these were prototypes and they are not expected to hit the shelves until some time next year.

Internet connected TVs… finally!

The really hot topic for TVs in 2009 is going to be Internet connectivity. This is a feature that has really come into focus over the last few years with the introduction of devices like Blu-ray DVD players, Internet-connected gaming centers, and services like TiVo, Xbox Live!, Netflix and VUDU that can connect to the Internet and deliver movies and other content.

As we touched on in our CES coverage, in 2009 the trend will be to move the connection directly to the TV. However, this doesn’t mean that we will have the ability to connect to the entire Web and surf away like we do on a PC or laptop. Rather, by adding a broadband connection and creating strategic partnerships with some of the Web’s major players, we will be able to access specific Web content.

The biggest news in this regard has come from Yahoo! and Intel. In August, these two giants announced a joint initiative to create software to bring an Internet experience to the TV. They call it the Widget Channel.

At CES they announced partnerships with several of the leading TV manufacturers, including Samsung, Sony, LG Electronics and Vizio. What this means for 2009, is access to on-demand news, weather, and other Yahoo! services, as well as photos and videos from the Yahoo!-owned site Flickr.

In the spirit of the open Internet, Yahoo! and Intel also released the Widget Development Kit (WDK) that will enable third-party developers to create TV Widgets to help create an entire connected TV ecosystem.

Widgets galore

Additional widgets (small applications that are usually downloadable and which are accessible from the desktop, or in this case the TV) have been announced by Showtime, Netflix, Blockbuster on Demand, CinemaNow, eBay, Rhapsody’s online music service, The New York Times, USA Today Sports, CBS Fantasy Football, and Funspot Games.

But easily the two biggest non-Yahoo!-owned TV widgets are the Twitter widget and the MySpace widget.

The Twitter widget alone could usher in a whole new area of interactive television. Imagine how many people could potentially use Twitter for entertainment purposes, creating a live back channel where you could Twitter your thoughts or questions about the content you were viewing in real time!

With the MySpace widget, users will be able to receive updates from friends, read and respond to messages, browse profiles and photos, and see status and mood updates all on their TVs. It takes the solitary act of watching TV and turns it into what could be a much more social experience. It's not hard to imagine groups of friends watching shows together, messaging each other throughout the viewing.

Did you say Cisco?

Cisco, the company formerly known for making the “pipes” that carry the Internet, is making a strong push into the home in 2009 with new products designed to connect televisions and stereos to the Internet and move media around the home.

But their biggest initiative is to make live video conferencing on big screen TVs a reality. Cisco will be provide consumers with the opportunity to use its business-to-business video conference package, Telepresence (highly publicized on FOX's popular 24 series), on HDTVs, marking the beginning of true, science-fiction-like video calls.

Cisco’s overall push into the home, as indicated by their massive “The Human Network” ad campaign, is in itself a trend to be aware of in 2009 and beyond.

Are we ready this time?

Of course talk about Internet-connected TVs has been around almost as long as the Internet itself. What’s different this time and are consumers ready?

To their credit, Yahoo! and Intel conducted very extensive market research on what consumers are looking for in a connected-TV experience. What they found was that consumers are not necessarily looking to have the entire Internet experience on the TV. Anything requiring a keyboard rather than a remote is almost sure to fail.

Rather, consumers are looking for access to information and other forms of entertainment that are outside the normal TV programming but which doesn’t necessarily interfere with their regular TV experience. Consumers also said they wanted something that could allow them to connect to other people as they watched – the social network experience.

(However, if you are someone who thinks that this kind of TV experience constitutes your worst nightmare, rest assured – you are not alone!).

And don’t forget the iPod!

One other cool TV trend for 2009 is the introduction by Panasonic of a new line of VIERA LCD televisions that feature a fully-integrated iPod entertainment kit. When the iPod is docked on one of these sets, you simply select the "VIERA Tools" button on the remote control to pull up the iPod icon. Once this is selected, you access a dropdown menu displaying their usual music, video and podcast options.

Extra credit

With any luck, the headline for this same piece in 2010 will focus on TVs with 3-D capabilities for movies and games. Right now Mitsubishi and LG are the closest to making this futuristic idea a reality, and we may even see some of these sets in time for the 2009 holiday season.

Less likely for a few years yet is a hot new technology that will compete with Plasma and LCD TVs. OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) TV sets are not only wafer-thin and bright, but the panels can also be used for lighting or even displayed as transparent windows that only transform into video displays when they're powered up!

Next: The top trends for 2009 in handheld devices and portable computing.

Barry Myers has been helping consumer technology brands communicate with consumers for over 12 years. Most recently he was a co-founder of DigitalLife, the country’s biggest consumer-facing technology conference and exposition. He’s currently hard at a work on his own niche social network. Barry lives in Manhattan with his wife, two-year old son, and twin cats Al and G.

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