Can the internet kill broadcast television? And if it does, which companies will have the power to deliver the programmes we want, and turn our living rooms into their cash machines? It’s a battle that Google wants to win with Google TV, which goes on sale this month, but there are several established players including Apple, Microsoft and Sony. It’s also a market where many smaller firms compete, including Logitech, Roku and Boxee. In the UK YouView boxes based on Project Canvas are expected next year.
The way we watch TV is obviously changing. For decades, people were slaves to the schedules, with the major broadcast networks fighting for audience share. Today, people watch TV programmes from a mixture of sources. These include DVDs, streamed content from things like YouTube, iPlayer, Blinkbox, Netflix and Hulu, and pirate file downloads. You no longer have to watch programmes at the same time as everybody else. You can, in theory, have what amounts to your own personal TV station.
The growing number of ways to watch TV has naturally led to a growing number of boxes attached to TV sets. The process started with VCRs and DVD players, expanded through set-top boxes and media-savvy games consoles such as the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3, and then Microsoft Media Center PCs. Some people even have Acer Revo and Asus Eee Box PCs clipped to the back of their LCD TV sets, but not many. In the UK, viewers can also get TV delivered over the internet via services such as BT Vision (based on Microsoft’s Mediaroom technology) and TalkTalk TV (formerly Tiscali TV), and other countries have similar services.
As you’ve no doubt noticed, very few systems have had much success. The fact is that while many companies have the ambition to take over the living room, new devices more often look like a confusing addition to whatever mixture of DVD, PVR, Freeview, cable TV, Sky+ and possibly TiVo boxes people already have. There’s a struggle to find more physical space, and how many people still have spare HDMI ports?
At the moment, then, the most successful living-room media invaders are the games consoles, particularly the PS3 and Xbox 360. The PS3 found many a home as a cheapish Blu-ray player when standalone Blu-ray players were expensive, and in the US it offers access to Netflix and Hulu services. The Xbox 360 provided a way to stream media from the PC in the home office or study then expanded by delivering movies (again, with Netflix in the US) and providing access to Facebook, Twitter and video chat.
But both machines are limited by their appeal to hardcore gamers rather than a broad spectrum of family users, and long sessions with first-person shooters are less than ideal when everyone else wants to catch up with EastEnders. Microsoft Kinect and Sony’s Move might bring in a less committed Nintendo Wii-style audience, but I wouldn’t bank on it.
The new Apple TV (no HD support, no hard drive, very few codecs) looks doomed to continued failure because Apple’s business model is to charge for a very limited range of content that you can easily get outside its proprietary "walled garden". The fact that people will pay for the convenience of getting stuff on an iPhone or iPod doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll pay to watch it on their home TV.