You would be hard-pressed to find a screen today that does not have Internet access. So how is it that the Internet has largely escaped the single biggest screen in most of our lives — the TV?
PALO ALTO, Calif. — You would be hard-pressed to find a screen today that does not have Internet access. It’s not just the PC and the phone — online content appears in elevators, in the back of taxis and at your airplane seat. Some companies have even tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to get the Internet displayed on a refrigerator door.
So how is it that the Internet has largely escaped the single biggest screen in most of our lives — the TV?
An intensifying, and perhaps surprising, debate is playing out around this question and others. Should televisions be able to get access to the Web? And not just the thin slices of the Web allowed by a few services, but the whole cacophonous, unregulated, messy thing? And if they should, how should they?
Now a movement is afoot by chip makers big and small to spur a new generation of TVs with full browser capability, like a personal computer. In October, Intel released its own TV-centric chip, and many other semiconductor designers and manufacturers are doing the same, industry analysts said.
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But perhaps the most surprising thing is not how long it is taking to get the Internet on TV but that, to some degree, the slow pace is deliberate. Television manufacturers simply do not seem to want it.
“Sony’s stance is that consumers don’t want an Internet-like experience with their TVs, and we’re really not focused on bringing anything other than Internet video or widgets to our sets right now,” said Greg Belloni, a spokesman for Sony. Widgets is an industry term for narrow channels of Internet programming like YouTube.
Ditto for Sharp Electronics. “I don’t think that consumers are yet ready to access all content on the Internet on the TV,” said Bob Scaglione, senior vice president for marketing at the Sharp Electronics Marketing Co. of America.
He added: “For now, it’s more important to deliver content consumers want on a TV and let them do their browsing on a PC.”
Some industry analysts say TV makers have a point, in that many consumers associate their television with one-way communications they ingest while leaning back on the couch. Browsing the Internet, the thinking goes, is a more active pursuit.
Analysts and industry executives say TV manufacturers have other reasons for asserting that consumers do not want to use the Internet from their couch. For one thing, profit margins in the TV industry are as tight as can be. So adding the cost of surfing technology — which could be $100 — is one potential roadblock.
Then there is the reality of opening a television up to the Internet and, potentially, the viruses and hiccups that can creep in from outside. Consumers have become accustomed to the occasional “blue screen of death” on a PC, but imagine that happening during prime time or the Super Bowl.
“People have very little tolerance for viruses and crashes on TVs,” said Eric Kim, senior vice president for the Digital Home Group at Intel. “If someone’s TV ever crashes, they will pack it up and bring it back to the store.”
Intel’s chip, called the Intel Media Processor CE 3100, does allow full browsing. But it has been adopted by only a handful of television manufacturers, and only in a limited fashion. Manufacturers seem to prefer to keep their customers in a walled garden of selected content.
Samsung, for instance, plans to sell TVs this spring that provide access to news, weather and finance channels provided by Yahoo.
Sharp’s Aquos TVs already have widgets that provide traffic, weather and financial information, access to daily syndicated comic strips, and some Web-based sports and entertainment programming from NBC. Sony offers similar widgets on some of its TVs.
For some TV manufacturers, Intel itself may be part of the problem, said Richard Doherty, an industry analyst at Envisioneering, a consumer-electronics market research firm. Doherty said TV manufacturers are wary of having Intel come to dominate the chip market.
“Even companies that are working with Intel have told me that they don’t want a single-supplier solution if they can help it,” Doherty said.
He added that Intel’s entry in the market has accelerated the development of Internet-centric TV chips at competitors like Broadcom, Texas Instruments, ST Micro, Free-scale and NXP.
Doherty said TV makers also risk losing control of the process if they do not figure out a solution soon enough. Other competitors include an array of set-top box makers, one, pointedly, deployed by cable companies that Doherty said could solve some niggling problems.
For instance, he said that such Internet access could run through the servers of the cable companies, allowing them to screen for viruses, add parental controls, and generally prevent some of the less desirable aspects of full Internet access.
The other possibility is that some entirely new competitor will emerge — someone like Gordon Campbell. Campbell, 64, was Intel’s first chief corporate marketing officer. He later designed semiconductors and has since done pioneering work on chips for the iPod and 3-D video games.
He calls the opportunity to make browser-centric chips for televisions “the biggest opportunity of any of them.”
Poised to shop product
His current company, Personal Web Systems, is poised this quarter to ship its first product, a $150 adapter that will attach to televisions to make them fully Internet-enabled.
Campbell says his company is reducing the technology included in the TV adapter device into a single stamp-size semiconductor that would embed full Internet access in TVs in more developed markets.
He thinks the price to manufacturers could be as low as $100. He also thinks the TV manufacturers are not being genuine when they say consumers do not want full Internet access.
“That’s hogwash,” he said. “This generation doesn’t want their hands tied behind their backs. They want the same experience as with a PC, and widgets don’t do that.”
Industry analysts said that chip makers — whether Campbell, Intel or others — need cooperation from the TV manufacturers. To some extent, Campbell said, that is true, but he believes that consumers will eventually buy set-top boxes that get the Internet, forcing TV makers to embed chips themselves or lose the business.
“The ultimate test will be when the technology hits the market and consumers decide,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to be on the widget side when that happens.”