Posted by: Kenji Hall on August 2, 2006
Ready to swap your PC for an Internet TV? That’s what five Japanese consumer-electronics makers are betting on with their plans for a hard sell of Net-connected TVs by next year. Soon, consumers in Japan will be able to flick through Web sites like they do TV channels.
The Big Five—which includes Sony, Matsushita Electric Industrial (Panasonic), Sharp, Toshiba and Hitachi—will work toward a Linux-based common standard for Net TVs by next spring, according to a report in the financial daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun. The idea is to make it a cinch to download video, music and other online digital content via a TV so you’ll never have to touch your PC. It’ll also prepare TVs for the switchover to digital broadcasts in Japan in July 2011 (in the U.S., that’s happening sooner, in February 2009), and gives the Big Five a way to control the technology, which they plan to license to others.
Convincing consumers that they should be doing all the Net browsing and downloads over a TV instead of a PC will be the hard part.
Lately, electronics hardware makers have been struggling to figure out how to make the TV the center of the digital home. On the surface, it looks to be a battle of PC makers vs consumer-electronics makers. But that's not the case: Most of Japan's Big Five also make laptop computers.
It's unclear why they would risk cannibalizing their own product lineup. Perhaps it's simply a hedge against the possibility that the PCs halcyon days at the top of the hardware heap are over.
To succeed in Net TVs, the Big Five will need to come up with easy-to-use designs. That's something they don't have a very good track record of doing. One likely scenario: a "Net" button on the TV remote that'll zip you straight to your favorite Web site. No doubt, these companies will argue their case by touting the "universal design" elements of these TVs. (Hey, look Ma, no keyboard! It's easy enough for young kids--or the elderly--to do!)
So far, most of the Big Five have their own Net TVs (Sharp's AQUOS Internet TV was recently launched) or Net TV services (for instance, Sony Communication Network, or So-net, offers a service in Japan). But there just hasn't been enough content to drive sales. There also hasn't been a whole lot of enthusiasm inside these companies for this product. Recently, I asked the head of R&D for Panasonic's flat-panel, plasma TVs what he thought about this sector and he replied: "It's a niche market." The agreement on a standard is good news for content providers since it will mean less of a headache when it comes to data-compression for video and other bulky files. It also means consumers won't have to worry about compatibility problems. In the end, consumers will have last word on whether this idea is a hit or flop.