Panasonic and Google have announced a cooperation that will allow Panasonic to manufacture Internet-enabled flat-screen TV receivers with the capability to access Google Web services, such as YouTube. So, from its incredibly successful roots as an Internet search engine, we now have Google Docs (a free Microsoft Office competitor), Google Phone (the company's reported attempt at developing an iPhone killer), the rumored Google OS and most recently, Google TV.
Does the broadcast industry have yet another competitor in that fierce battle for viewers' eyeballs? The real question is a challenging one: Can entertainment television and Web-based activity coexist on the same living room, media room or rec room large-screen? Google, and presumably Panasonic, believes it has the killer app that will bridge the two mediums to convergence. But does it? Let's take a look at recent history.
“Killer apps” from the past
With great fanfare, Apple TV, a device allowing the streaming of content from the PC to the TV receiver, was announced in September 2006. Last year, Apple released a software upgrade to enable the streaming of YouTube content. With an incredible track record under Steve Jobs for developing such nifty and highly successful products as iPods, iPhones, and iMac and Mac computers, Apple TV has languished in the marketplace.
Yahoo! Tech picked Apple TV as one of its top 10 worst tech products in 2007. In an attempt to address these disappointing sales, Apple plans to deliver yet another software upgrade, this one designed to enable the streaming of HD movies, which can be rented through iTunes and viewed on HD displays. Thus, Apple — a superstar in product innovation — continues to search for that convergence magic bullet.
Remember WebTV? Founded by ex-Apple Computer and General Magic engineers, WebTV, according to its then CEO, was supposed “ … to make Internet access via TV a low-cost, fun, easy and compelling experience for consumers.”
At the opening of NAB1997, Microsoft announced its planned acquisition of WebTV, an action that many people thought signaled the company's plan to enter the TV industry. After three years of minimal consumer acceptance, despite the hype of the behemoth Microsoft marketing machine (household penetration was less than 1 percent), WebTV slowly faded away as Microsoft morphed it into UltimateTV, a DVR platform available through DIRECTV and MSN TV, a collection of TV-oriented services mostly delivered through an entertainment-centric Web portal.
One final “killer app” from the past is Sony's Location Free TV technology. Originally introduced in 2004 as an Internet-enabled two-piece TV receiver, it used a base unit and viewing screen that were connected by the electronic umbilical of Wi-Fi. Introductory prices were in the kilobuck plus range. Today, Location Free TV has been essentially morphed into a $200 Slingbox competitor.
The road to convergence
The road to convergence of the Internet and the TV screen is littered with remains of the many previous attempts. Will Google and Panasonic be able to capture the imagination of the public where others have failed? Is YouTube the “killer app” that will finally open the door to true convergence? I don't think so.
I do think that convergence will happen. The real enabler is still out there, waiting to be discovered. In the mean time, the broadcast industry has the opportunity to continue doing what it has been, which is to aggressively embrace and exploit the Internet as an adjunct to its broadcast service. As the industry does this, these two services will come closer together. And, as the industry melds its delivery services, it will be well positioned for the coming convergence in the home.
Stick to what you know
Back to YouTube. I can understand the strategy to place YouTube in front of as many eyes as possible, from PC screens to cell phones to TV sets. But I don't think YouTube belongs on my large-screen HDTV.
Google built a tremendous business based on its search engine technology. Tom Peters in his seminal book on management, “In Search of Excellence,” had an entire chapter titled “Stick to the Knitting,” or stay with the business that you know. Perhaps someone at Google's headquarters should Google it.
Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.
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