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Why Web widgets will invade your TV

Web widgets bring Internet perks to the biggest screen in most people’s homes.

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TV watchers are undergoing a significant shift, says Maitreyi Krishnaswami, director of interactive video services for Verizon. Many are no longer passive viewers. “Now it’s really about interactive TV and social TV,” she says. People are already checking on their fantasy sports teams or commenting on the reality TV show they’re watching using a mobile phone or computer.

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Verizon’s “Widget Bazaar” is accessed through a “Widget” button provided on Verizon remote controls, Ms. Krishnaswami says. No special Web-enabled TV is needed, nor do viewers need a high-definition TV set or a digital video recorder (DVR). Right now, they’ll find 10 or 12 widgets, with many more coming in the months ahead, she says.

Last summer, Verizon introduced widgets that allow access to the viewer’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, using the TV remote and an onscreen keyboard. Viewers can watch a split-screen mode in which the TV program runs on one side and “tweets,” short comments about the program from people using Twitter, run next to it.

One of the most popular uses of Facebook on Verizon is to access people’s online photo albums and display them on the TV. “What you see are really high-quality images on the television that you can share with your family,” Krishnaswami says.

The Ernst & Young report on TV widgets does include some cautions. Who will pay for them, and how, isn’t clear. If widgets include advertising content, they might conflict with advertising being shown on the TV program itself. What if Car Company A is running an ad on TV while Car Company B’s ad is being displayed on a widget?

And unless Web-enabled TVs include Wi-Fi, viewers will have to link their TV to the Internet through a wired Ethernet connection. Getting that wire to the TV could be a home-networking hassle if the computer and TV are in different rooms.

What will really be interesting in the future, Mr. Scherf says, is if a content provider such as ESPN designs its own widgets to customize and enhance its TV programs. Viewers might be able to decide which sports scores or other information they want displayed in the widget, for example.

While Scherf doesn’t envision people reading e-mail on a TV, the kind of “snackable sharing” represented by Facebook or Twitter “seems to be a fit,” he says.

Today’s early widgets mostly offer a distraction from TV content, such as news or weather. Eventually, “smart widgets” may automatically enhance TV viewing, says James McQuivey, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., in a paper from earlier this year. Smart widgets could “listen” to the audio track of the show being watched and offer more information about it – or even suggest a new widget you might like to download based on your interests. TV programs already carry hidden digital information identifying them.

“When all the dust settles, the entire landscape of how we watch TV will be altered,” Mr. McQuivey writes, referring to widgets. “Advertisers will have more active ways to engage TV viewers  ... [and] consumers will have more ways to watch the shows they love most.”