Sunday, September 27, 2009

I Want My WebTV

Well, not exactly.

I’m not sure what’s tougher to believe—that I started at WebTV almost 13 years ago, or that I still have t-shirts stating “I Want My WebTV”.

Maybe I should hit the gym more.

The past week saw two get-togethers near and dear to my heart—the Intel Developer Forum and the DLNA Members Meeting. IDF is Intel’s new technology showcase; the DLNA meeting is a chance for representatives from the ~250 member companies to convene to review progress and continue advancing the cause for the connected home.

I often think back to what we bit off at WebTV, and continue to be amazed by the vision of TV that Steve, Bruce, and Phil had waaaaay back in the mid-‘90s. No, WebTV didn’t end up taking over the world. And yes, I think that we proved empirically that consumers don’t want to surf the Internet on their televisions…which might not have been what we set out to do, but we accomplished so much more in those early years on the WebTV platform, whose DNA lives on in millions of IPTV set-top boxes around the world.

The original WebTV was all about the Internet on your television—the simplicity of a compact set-top box, a phone cord, and a connection to the TV. Contrasted with the PC Internet experience of the day, WebTV was revolutionary, cost-effective, and ridiculously easy to use. A year later, the WebTV Plus integrated a TV tuner, an electronic program guide, and honest-to-god interactivity into the television viewing experience. I spent so much of 1998 and 1999 talking about interactive triggers, I could probably still teach analog TV fundamentals classes in my sleep.

VBI Line 21. Crossover links. Good times.

Snapping back to present day, I’m always excited to see additional functionality brought to the television. Whether you believe that the heart of the home is the set-top box, the game console, or simply the display itself, the main television continues to be the family gathering place. Intel has been working diligently on adding additional value to the TV platform, in a manner both visible to consumers and (hopefully) attractive to manufacturers.

Earlier this year, I sat down with Kevin Hattendorf, Platform Marketing Director in Intel’s digital home group. Kevin was kind enough to fill me in on Intel’s goals with their consumer electronics-focused system-on-chip (SOC) platform, and to provide some insight on how Intel views future opportunities in the living room.

In the beginning, there was “CE 1.0”, or analog television. Interactivity and high quality video and audio were difficult or impossible in the analog world, making the introduction of digital television at the beginning of this decade so exciting—“CE 2.0”, as Intel calls it. In the decade or so since digital television delivery came into play, consumers have become used to enhanced services such as electronic program guides, digital video recorders, and video-on-demand.

“CE 3.0” adds Internet connectivity to consumer electronics, providing tremendous value-add to both content and CE usage models. Intel views the combination of Internet capability and a standards-based browser on the television as a mechanism to open up the TV, to bring the freedom of the Internet to the big screen. I agree, for the most part—again, I think that we proved at WebTV that consumers do not want to browse the Internet on their televisions, but that they crave their information, when they want it, presented in a fashion that’s both useful and unobtrusive.

Let’s draw a parallel to mobile devices. Prior to the introduction of the iPhone, most “smart” phones were little more than e-mail devices with lousy browers. Today, the iPhone and devices based on Palm’s webOS and RIM’s OS 5.0 enhance the e-mail experience with a fully functional browser and an application framework which opens up a wealth of customization options. The App Store is the biggest and bestest example of a consumer’s ability to personalize a service-backed device, with more than 75,000 widgets of every flavor; expect application stores from RIM, Palm, and (especially) Android to also begin making their own marks over the next 6-12 months. The great thing about this personalization capability is that it allows each user to create the experience they want, not that the service provider wants. Despite the resultant value dilution of on-deck applications, carriers love the stickiness this capability creates—particularly when the carrier has an exclusive carriage window on the handset (see AT&T + iPhone).

Apple revolutionized the mobile experience by creating a platform for developers to deliver low-cost or free applications to the ever-growing user base of iPhones and iPod Touches. Intel is looking to create a similar framework on the television with their SOCs.

A year ago, Intel introduced the CE3100 processor, a.k.a. Canmore. This week, they followed up with the CE4100, a.k.a. Sodaville. While Kevin and I spoke primarily about Canmore, he stressed multiple benefits from the CE family of Intel Architecture (IA) SOCs—scale, performance, and throughput advantages leading to enhanced user experiences, not to mention the CPU speed we all expect from Intel. Canmore was very much a first generation platform, enabling manufacturers to get their feet wet with Intel Inside of living room devices. Sony, Samsung, LG, and Vizio have all announced TVs built on the Intel architecture, as have other vendors delivering consumer electronics devices; while current products ship using the first generation Canmore platform, future systems will use Sodaville and successors—delivering even more functionality to the living room, and beyond.

Flashback: I remember the first time I visited Samsung’s TV lab in Suwon, in February, 1997. Bill Keating, Jackie Friedman, Spencer Tall, and I strolled in with a handful of WebTV boxes to discuss and demo our wares, to compare and contrast ourselves with the “net-TV” prototype Samsung had built. Keep in mind that these were the days of the tube and the modem, not the broadband, flat-panel landscape we enjoy now. The Samsung engineers rolled in a ~36” tube that must’ve weighed 200 pounds, and lacked a plastic case at the rear of a typical production TV. Wedged behind the screen was a compact (by 1997 standards) PC running Windows 95, with a web browser displaying TV-related Internet content in Korean.

Which looked like crap.

I relate this story not to indict Samsung—in the last decade, they’ve become arguably the most innovative TV manufacturer in the world. I provide this recap to demonstrate what an iterative process product development is, and how far we’ve come in the last dozen years. In 1997, manufacturers were trying to figure out whether to build PCs into their televisions—taking a device with an average selling price of a couple thousand dollars, duct taping it to another device with an average selling price of a couple thousand dollars. Remember that these were the days of a 15-20 year refresh cycle on living room televisions, so two plus two definitely didn’t equal four. As we’ve seen time and again in the consumer electronics industry, the sole successful combo product to date has been the clock radio; camera phones will eventually get there, but it’s been a long slog through a lot of grainy photos en route.

Now, we may’ve turned the corner on the next generation of consumer electronics devices—CE 3.0, as Kevin told me. The poorly executed Internet and walled garden TV content experiences of the last dozen years have given way to televisions with powerful hearts and souls in the form of chipsets specifically designed to provide exactly what consumers want on their TVs, when they want it, with a sufficiently good user interface to not impact the TV watching experience itself. Yankee Group forecasts 91 million connected devices in U.S. households by 2013. If Intel successfully executes on the roadmap Kevin laid out for me, I believe that number is dramatically low. Consumers have shown that they want Netflix on their TVs, that they want Hulu on their TVs. Intel's architecture is ideally suited to provide these types of capabilities via their widget architecture, particularly in partnership with Yahoo. Soon, I expect to create my own personalized walled garden using widgets from Intel's and Yahoo's partners, and hope to have an experience replicating that of Apple's App Store, of Nokia's Ovi Store, of the Android Market, of BlackBerry's App World. Combined with DLNA widgets enabling me to access my content whenever, wherever? We're talking serious nirvana.

As Intel showed with the introduction of Canmore last year, and Sodaville this week, they're working diligently to provide a platform delivering applications (such as Flash-based widgets) of unique interest to individual consumers. I appreciate Kevin's time and insight, and eagerly look forward to what the living room holds over the next couple of years for platforms based on Intel hardware and widget software, enabling each of us to get the TV we want, when we want, how we want.

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