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Tech Talk: The TV moves from dumb box to smart console

I know the big, sexy TVs out there are hard to resist, especially now that the manufacturers are talking about “The NFL Live in 3D in your living room.” But I’m going to try to save you a lot of cash (although I suspect you’ll go and buy a new TV anyway).

The television itself, that big black box on your wall, is about to transform into the Everything-In-One box, which means you’ll be able to throw away your DVD player, your Xbox, Wii and whatever other gizmos you have littering your living room right now.


Simple — all of the content for everything is going to start being hosted on the Internet. Games, videos, movies, and (eventually) network TV will all stream through a giant Internet connection in your wall. That means two things: First, you don’t need to buy entertainment peripherals; you’ll just need a TV, a smartphone (to act as your remote control and gaming handset), and a rockin’ set of speakers. Second, your TV is going to have to change, a lot.

TVs have always been a “dumb” device, like a computer monitor. They took signals that some other device generated, and simply displayed them. How boring.

Right now we’re on the very edge of seeing how cool TVs could be with a few processor chips and a direct Internet connection. Samsung, Panasonic and Sony have all launched “Internet TVs.”

Sony Internet TV is aligned with Google, Panasonic is off on its own and floundering around. Samsung has its own apps back end, which seems to be the strongest independent platform.

Apple was early to the party with its Apple TV, but how clunky to have that hard drive lying around when that hardware could easily fit inside a TV. Apple TV is just a slightly smaller package that does the same thing as the Wii and Xbox but without the ability to do gaming — fail. Oh, wait, Apple TV can access iTunes. Pardon me.

One night recently I had a group of friends over, and for background music I streamed Pandora Radio through my Samsung Internet TV. It blew my mind, but my friends didn’t notice it at all because it worked as well as if I had spent hours crafting a playlist on iTunes, downloaded the list to my iPhone and then streamed it to my TV through the stereo.

No, my friends, this was “live” off of the Web. And it saved me hours of time to do it this way. I just set Pandora to play songs that sound similar to “My Prerogative” by Bobby Brown. Everyone was jamming to the ’80s and I could focus on being a gracious host instead of being the DJ all night.

Entertainment providers and businesses are going to need to think about how their content will flow from the Internet into a TV set. Radio producers will find their content on TV. Game developers will, too.

Let’s also talk about cost savings. I have turned off cable in my home and office, disconnected my landline telephone service and now have only a simple Internet connection from a small local company with great service. My connectivity costs $34.95 a month. To get some decent content, I have a $10-per-month subscription to Netflix and a $10-per-month subscription to Hulu Plus.

This means I get most of the premium network content plus every movie I could ever hope to watch streaming into my living room in high definition, commercial-free (except that Hulu plays two to four short commercials per episode) for about $55 a month. Take that, Comcast and Verizon. I use my laptop to peruse the local news.

TVs are going to own it, everyone. Right now the technology has a couple of glitches with remote controls (and even the smartphone apps that are supposed to replace the remotes). The apps such as Facebook, YouTube and Picasa are also just a little bit under-engineered.

For example, if you log in to your account on the Samsung YouTube app, you can’t view the videos that you uploaded, you can only see the popular videos on the network. On the flip side, though, you can have the TV scan your laptop and display those movies on screen. I’ve downloaded a couple of video games to my TV, but the TV remote control doesn’t give the same feel as a Wii.

But these issues can and will be fixed very soon, probably by the end of 2011. And then my friends, let’s all go buy new TVs!

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a Web consulting firm in Baltimore. Her e-mail address is [email protected] and you can follow her on Twitter, @marcidevries.