Why Web widgets will invade your TV

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

Rob Dunlavey
Beware, the web widgets are coming.

The Internet revolution may finally be televised.

Innocuous little software applications, popularly known as “widgets,” may turn out to be the back door to your TV screen that Internet companies have been waiting for.

For more than a decade, businesses have been trying to make the Internet available on the largest screen in most homes. In 1996, Time Warner offered WebTV, which failed to find an audience and folded. Even today, projects like Hewlett Packard’s MediaSmart (2006) and Apple TV (2007) have yet to win over large numbers of viewers, hampered by complicated setups or limited programming choices.

Widgets promise to bring the perks of the Internet to TV screens, using a familiar remote control instead of a computer mouse.

All indications are that widgets are going to “move very quickly to a great many of the TVs being sold in the next few years – if not all of them,” says Kurt Scherf, vice president and principal analyst at Parks Associates, a market research firm in Dallas that specializes in emerging consumer technologies.

What’s changed? Unlike a decade ago, most households now have broadband Internet service, meaning people already have the ability to stream high-quality Internet data, including video, to their computers. In many cases, these broadband connections are provided by the same company that pipes cable television into homes.

At the same time, more and more consumers are becoming familiar with downloading and using “apps,” or widgets, on their cellphones or laptops. Apple’s iPhone alone offers thousands of apps that add useful or fun functions to that mobile phone.

TV widgets – small, useful programs and icons that appear along the bottom or side of a television screen – perform similar functions. They might give information about news, weather, sports, or stocks – or link to popular social-networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, or the photo-sharing website Flickr.

TV manufacturers seem bullish on the idea. Sony, Samsung, and LG already offer TV sets capable of displaying widgets and linking to the Internet. Vizio, a low-cost HDTV brand, will follow shortly, and set a new standard by offering a small pullout keyboard inside its remote. Vizio will also build in Wi-Fi capability, meaning no wiring will be needed to connect the TV to the Internet.

About 400,000 TVs sold in the US this year will be Web-enabled. But by 2013, about 13.8 million TV sets in US households will be Web-enabled, says a study from Parks Associates.

“We think it’s exciting. We think it’s real,” says Howard Bass, a partner at Ernst & Young’s Global Media & Entertainment Center. Last month, Ernst & Young released a report on TV widgets predicting that they “could be the catalyst to widespread adoption of Web-enabled TV.”

Widgets won’t try to duplicate a computer screen on TVs. That’s not what TV viewers are looking for, analysts say. Instead, widgets offer a simple point-and-click experience using the existing TV remote control.

“All they need to know is left, right, up, down, and OK,” says Russ Schafer, senior director for Connected TV at Yahoo. The company announced earlier this year that it had teamed with chipmaker Intel to promote development of widgets for TVs.

Yahoo has tested TV widgets with people from 18-year-olds to those in their 60s and universally found them easy to use, Mr. Schafer says.

The coming months should be “the big blowout year for connected TVs,” Schafer predicts about 2010.

Among the widget connections Yahoo is offering now, or will be shortly, are USA Today’s sports news; YouTube; and casual games, such as Sudoku. Yahoo provides about 20 widgets now but has potentially thousands more in the pipeline, Schafer says, some of which will show up by early 2010.

Another major player in TV widgets, Verizon FiOS, continues to expand its network of digital television and broadband Internet services over its US fiber-optic lines.

Verizon FiOS and Internet customers in the New York City area now can get video of local traffic conditions via a TV widget called “NYC 311.” Live cameras, operated by the City of New York, show conditions on roads in all five boroughs of the city. Viewers can zoom in for a closer look at a particular road and set “favorites” to go immediately to the routes they use to commute each day.

The ESPN Fantasy Football Widget, available to viewers who’ve signed up for ESPN’s fantasy football leagues, displays personalized football statistics, such as box scores, league rankings, and information on players.

In the Yahoo-Intel Widget Gallery, the eBay widget permits users to receive real-time updates on their accounts, place bids, and monitor favorite items. Users can view photos or search for and compare prices of items. A New York Times widget lets viewers see headlines, photos, and stories, and forward them to their mobile phone.

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.

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.”

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