Posted by: Arik Hesseldahl on July 16, 2009
Macrovision is the kind of company you don’t often think about, because most of the things it does are in the background. When you insert a CD into your computer and rip it to iTunes, the song information comes down to your computer via an online database that Macrovision operates, and it also creates a lot of the on-screen programming guides that cable and satellite companies use.
Today it’s going to announce that it’s changing its name to Rovi and that it will be traded on the NASDAQ under the symbol ROVI.
But that’s only part of the news. It’s also debuting a new media guide technology that as yet doesn’t have a final name, but which has a code name “Liquid.” I got an exclusive demonstration of the technology yesterday and it shows some advances that are badly needed for TVs.
Think of the on-screen program guide that your cable or satellite TV provider gives you, and then think about how you would improve it. It might look a lot like Liquid. As you can see from the pictures the program guide has more of a 3D look. Programs later on in the schedule look like they're a tad farther away from you.
But the guide has the capability of doing a lot more than showing what's on TV in the traditional sense. In a world where technically inclined people are watching TV shows on Web services like Hulu and installing applications on their notebooks like Boxee which I profiled recently – and in some cases connecting their PCs to their TVs - "watching TV" is a little more fluid an activity than before. Watching a show or movie might easily involve streaming content from somewhere on the Web, maybe via Amazon or Netflix. There are even add-on boxes like AppleTV that will stream YouTube clips to you TV.
Liquid takes all that stuff into account. Search for a show and it will present you with options from the broadcast networks but also sources on the Web, or from your computer's collection of movies. As part of the announcement it says it will work with Blockbuster OnDemand, Blockbuster's online video service. If you have an account with it, you'll be able to watch those movies directly on your TV and access its library directly from the Liquid menu. It will also work with Google's YouTube XL, which optimizes YouTube clips for large screens.
It's also aware of what content you have stored not only on your computer but on other computers on your home network, even networked hard drives, Wi-Fi-enabled mobile phones like the iPhone among others, or whatever other storage media that is connected to your network.
And if your networked devices contain photos and home movies, then they'll be as readily available from the program guide on your TV as anything else, and easily viewable on the best screen in the house. This is of course something that Boxee and Microsoft's Media Center PCs have been doing for some time, but you have to know the ins and outs of connecting a computer to your TV, and of your home network. The Liquid system handles all that for you.
And how can it do that? Simple: It's installed directly on the TV set, or alternately the settop box. But the TV is clearly the company's favored place. Internet-ready TV sets are more widely used in Europe and in Asia they they are in North America, and making this work requires getting some kind of Internet connection to the TV. Whether that's a home Wi-Fi connection or something else is yet to be fully decided, and in fact Corey Ferengul, Macrovision/Rovi's VP, who led my demonstration of Liquid, readily conceded that that fact is going to stand in the way toward adoption in North America. But the company has relationships with some of the biggest names in the consumer electronics business, including Sony, Panasonic, and Vizio among others.
There's another important fact that complicates this: US consumers wait years and years to replace their TV sets, and their cable boxes. And getting these connected TVs into the marketplace will mean spurring a big upgrade cycle, or the purchase of many secondary TV sets around the house. If you're like me, you buy a TV only when you really need one, because your existing one has become insufficient somehow.
But there's no question that TVs are going to be connected to the Internet in one way or another. I talked with Josh Martin, an analyst at The Yankee Group. The firm is forecasting that by 2013 there will be 52 million TVs in North America connected to the Internet in some fashion. But here's the rub: Each TV vendor is going about it differently. "At the end of the day everything is going to be connected. That's just the way things are going with entertainment media," Martin says. "The question is where and how will they access their broadband content."
Then there's the prospect of a lot of consumer confusion. And when confusion reigns, especially on the TV front, consumers tend to withhold their purchasing decisions. We saw that with the battle between BLU-Ray discs and HD-DVD, and we've seen it in the LCD vs plasma debate. If there are multiple ways to get a TV connected to Internet, all of them different and incompatible, then consumers will correctly decide to wait until the battles are settled.
Of Liquid, Martin said: "It's a good product but it's really a first step. It brings in content from disparate places, which is something that has to be done, but it's really just an important beginning."
Service providers, will want the data pipe to come through their settop boxes, but TV manufacturers will try to offer solutions through the sets themselves. Ferengul told me of a meeting with an executive from with a TV manufacturer in Asia who said he wanted to "get the remote back." I have to say, I haven't used the remote that came with my TV set in years, and interact mostly with the unit provided by my local cable company.
Incidentally, there was another interesting developments on this front yesterday. Verizon announced that it's bringing some Internet content to the TV portion of its FIOS service, specifically Facebook, Twitter, Disney's ESPN, Veoh, blip.tv, and Dailymotion. It also plans to allow software developers to create software widgets that will be available via an application store it's calling Widget Bazaar.
You won't see Liquid on TV sets available this year. The company is negotiating deals with manufacturers now, with an eye toward having it built into sets that will be on the market in late 2010.
I've embedded a few images from the demo I saw so you can see what Liquid looks like.