The Future Is TV on Your TV…Over the Internet

After over a decade of speculation and failed attempts, it looks like online content is finally coming to your living room. In my last column, we looked at how TV and the Internet are converging through the rapidly-growing streaming video services (Amazon, Apple TV, Netflix, etc.) that deliver video content over the Internet through proprietary set-top boxes.

But is video that streams through services like Netflix the shape of things to come or just another interim step towards the eventual convergence of all media content?

For now, Netflix serves a purpose because it has developed a distribution channel that can handle licensing, fee-collection, and other operations that move video from the producers of content – the studios and TV channels – to the consumers. Same with the other subscription-based streaming-video services. We have a situation not all that unlike the early days of online communications with a number of self-contained “walled gardens” (see AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, etc.) and a disorganized and difficult-to-access (for non-techies, at least) mass of content outside of these services. What happened in those early days? Eventually the Web happened, providing a common platform for content accessible across a huge range of non-proprietary devices. Using open standards (HTML, TCP/IP, etc.) with relatively-easy-to-use technology for content creators, the Web disrupted the information industry, made content accessible to the world, and lead a revolution in content to where we are today. Mass consumer acceptance only came when the channel became open to all.

Is this possible in the world of online video? Is the TV the last frontier? I believe so. True “convergence” will only come by opening up the means of distribution. The future isn’t “the Web on your TV” but rather “TV on your TV…that happens to come over the Internet.”

What’s lacking is technology to allow anyone with a smidgen of technical knowledge to bring video to your TV, much like the Web allowed anyone with a smidgen of technical knowledge to bring content to your computer. But just as the first Web browser was designed to leverage familiar computer interfaces as a way of navigating content (clicking with the mouse, using buttons and other interface widgets, etc.), the successful “video browser” that brings online video content into our living rooms will have to be constructed with an understanding of the TV “interface” and TV experience in mind. It won’t require a keyboard to navigate, won’t require complicated maneuvers to move a “mouse pointer” around on the TV screen, and won’t require us to interact beyond pushing a few buttons. As far as the proprietary services go, we’re pretty much there now, with Apple TV’s super-simple remote leading the charge and keyboard-remote combos (like TiVo’s new Slide remote) stepping in to bridge the gap between your armchair and the Internet by making it easier to search for content.

But as far as the final jump across the TV/Internet chasm goes, however, we’re still not there. Sure, you can get video content over the Internet on your TV via proprietary services that besides showing you their own content often also allow you to pull “online” video from sources such as YouTube, but it’s still not very easy (or possible for most folks) to tap into all the zillions of other video sources that exist on the Web in order to bring them to your TV. For now, we’re stuck with a variety of competing services that require us to juggle multiple accounts (and multiple bills) if we want to get our mitts on the full range of online and/or streaming content.

What the real revolution’s waiting for is a set of tools and standards that allow anyone to create streaming video content (or standalone information sources of other, yet-to-be-dreamed-of types) that can be streamed through set-top boxes. Just as HTML, the Internet, and the Web browser revolutionized the publishing of online content, moving it out of proprietary services, and making it universally-available, an open-standards, platform-agnostic platform designed for the TV (or TV-like devices) would launch a similar revolution in information publishing and access.

There have been steps towards this already, most notably IPTV. However, as a quick browse of the article linked here will demonstrate, IPTV misses the boat because it still assumes a computer-centric world. And for good reason: that’s what we’ve got.

So, what needs to happen in order to bring the next revolution to our living rooms?

  1. A multimedia content browser designed for TV viewing that runs on multiple set-top box OS’es. Just as the first browser (Mosaic) made the Web possible by providing a standard platform for publishing, accessing, and browsing Internet information on our computers, a set-top box “browser” could do the same thing for streaming multimedia content to our TVs. Apple TV can almost run iPhone apps and Google TV can already run Android apps…a perfect platform to get started.
  2. Acceptance of this browser by the set-top box companies. This, of course, is going to be the toughest point. What financial interest would they have to open up their walled gardens? The fact of the matter is that if they don’t, someone will. Again, all we need to do is look at the example of AOL for a historical precedent. AOL didn’t want to open up its service to the Web, but eventually it had no choice.
  3. A content creation platform that, like HTML, is simple to learn, open-standards-based, and flexible. This type of platform would allow content creators and publishers to create their own TV “channels” accessible through set-top box “browsers” for video and audio content. Providing a JavaScript-like scripting language would allow for applications that run on these devices, too. Just look at what happened when Apple decided to (kind of) open its phones to independently developed apps.
  4. A standards-based system for collecting payments and protecting intellectual property. If this existed, anyone could create their own “network,” “reselling” TV content via their own homebrew channel, possibly mixed in with their own homemade content. The system would allow them to publish existing content, charge for access (if they wanted/needed to), and would make sure that the original content creators got paid. Content creators could make their own TV-based content available and be confident that they were going to get paid for their IP.
  5. A standards-based system for inserting advertising into the TV browser stream. Someone’s gotta pay for the content, right? If commercials could be inserted into this open TV platform it would come out of the box (so to speak) with a revenue model in-hand. It’d also open up a whole new channel for advertisers that’s a lot like TV advertising, in some ways bringing us back full circle.
  6. The ability to republish content on any device that can run the “TV Browser” app. This would open up the system to desktop and mobile devices, further expanding the potential audience.

Who would resist a system like this? Just about every proprietary provider of TV content in existence, probably…just as AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy resisted the Web. But just like the Web, it’ll take a collection of independent hardware and software producers working outside of the walled gardens to open the floodgates. Google TV is starting to look a lot like this, but it’s got a ways to go in terms of open-standards content creation tools designed for televisions (rather than “enhanced” websites).

All in all, the pieces are nearly in place. But the change will require more than the development of new technology…it’ll require a change in mindset. After all, what the future’s looking for isn’t “the Web on your TV” but rather “TV on your TV. Only better.

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