Mejia: Merging television and the Web

Digital media and television are on a collision course.

Convergence between online content and consumer electronics has been a recent buzzword among the tech community. The recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was full of consumer electronics companies touting Web-connected appliances. Howard Stringer, corporate executive officer of Sony, predicted that in two years, nearly every Sony product would connect to the Web. Consumer electronics companies envision the eventuality of a seamless media experience, one where it is just as easy to pull up a video from YouTube on your television as it is to change the channel.

There is certainly no lack of content available online — so it’s easy to see why companies are eager to allow their products access to the vast media library that is the Internet. Various pay, subscription and ad-supported services allow consumers to download and watch movies and television shows as soon as they air. Broadband Internet access has reached enough households to make the Internet a viable distribution channel, and home computers can play and store thousands of hours of video and music.

But while the technology infrastructure exists, the widespread adoption of online television and networked media centers remains a distant goal.

What is lacking is simplicity. Unless manufacturers find a way to implement online connectivity seamlessly, I don’t see a large portion of consumers using the technology.

Just look at the digital television transition. While the process is relatively simple for consumers — cable subscribers don’t need to do anything to convert digital broadcasts and those who own an old set only need to plug in a converter box — it created confusion and delays.

If this is the case, what does it say about adoption of online distribution services?

Another potential problem is that there is no unified standard on publishing content online or which service to use. Indeed, a format war — like that between Blu-ray and HD-DVD — remains to be waged in the online market. When both disk formats existed, consumers were wary of purchasing one or the other for fear that their choice would become obsolete.

The online distribution market seems to be facing this problem. A myriad of different services are currently available — all with different content and sets of restrictions. Eventually, one service will likely survive, while others fail, which might unite hardware manufacturers. Either that, or content producers must collectively decide to remove Digital Rights Management, which puts certain restrictions on the use of downloaded media. Removing DRM would allow consumers to purchase from multiple sources but permit videos to be played anywhere.

Current online services need to address their lack of portability and try to future-proof their services. Online connectivity seems like an immature technology that is poised to become the standard way of watching TV — once some sort of standard emerges.

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