Yahoo's TV Widgets Service Tries to Bridge the Web/TV Divide

"TV Widgets" -- the latest attempt to meld television and the Internet, this time by Yahoo and Intel -- is here. Based on simple screen icons, it promises to show up in a range of products this year, ranging from flat-panel TVs to DVD players. First out of the gate: A new breed of Samsung HDTVs.

Best Buy stores Sunday began selling the Samsung LED 7100 Series equipped with Yahoo widgets, which are mini-applications that connect directly to the Web using Intel's Media Processor CE 3100. They're the first products to spring from the Widget Channel TV application framework announced last summer by Yahoo and Intel.

This year, several other companies, including Sony and Vizio, will begin selling their own flat-panel HDTVs, set-top boxes or DVD players based on the Yahoo-Intel widget platform, Michael Greeson, president of the research firm The Diffusion Group, told The Standard. Comcast will enter into field trials with a widget set-top box by the third or fourth quarter, LG will put it into its Blu-ray players, and Toshiba is planning on using the technology for its HDTVs, Greeson said.

The Samsung "widget" TVs available so far are very big and very expensive: The 46-inch panel lists for nearly US$3,000 and the 55-inch model costs $3,799. They can connect to the Internet either through a built-in wired Ethernet connection or via a Wi-fi connection through a separately sold $80 USB dongle.

So far only four widgets, all Yahoo branded, are available: Yahoo News, Yahoo Weather, Yahoo Finance and Yahoo Flickr. According to a Yahoo demonstration video, pressing one button on the TV remote loads the widget toolbar, a customizable, scrollable horizontal set of icons located at the bottom of the screen. Widgets can be undocked to see more detail without interrupting ongoing TV viewing.

According to Yahoo spokesperson Lucas Mast, approximately two dozen more widgets will be available by June and there will be 100 from which to choose by the end of the year. "We have 300 publishers interested in developing TV Widgets from individuals to large content publishers," Mast said. Available soon will be widgets from Accedo Games, Twitter, Yahoo Video, eBay, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, Showtime, CBS Entertainment, the New York Times, and CinemaNow. Others that have announced plans to develop widgets include Disney/ABC, MySpace, Viacom/MTV, Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster, Associated Press and Joost.

The Samsung TVs also come with a built-in "content library" containing "photo art gallery, games, workout routines, recipes and other interesting digital content."

Two reviews on the Best Buy site did not mention the widgets or the TVs' Internet connectivity.

Despite being called widgets, which are generally defined as snippets of general-purpose code, Yahoo's widgets are actually proprietary mini-apps like Vista's Sidebar gadgets, said Greeson. "It's an icon and a little bit of software behind the icon to connect to the Internet, sitting on your TV," he said. Most widgets will be free but some providers such as Comcast eventually will charge for additional services through widgets, he said.

Thanks to the popularity of icon-based interfaces like the iPhone's, the time is right for widget-based Web TV, according to Greeson. However, most people see widgets as a way to enhance their TV viewing experience, not simply as another way to access the Internet, he noted. "Nobody wants just a browser experience. Nobody wants the Internet just dumped on the TV," he said. Samsung TVs have no general-purpose Internet browser.

A survey of 2,000 broadband users conducted in December by The Diffusion Group revealed that 76 percent would welcome a minimally invasive Internet toolbar on their TV screen. However, the content people most wanted to access was old TV episodes, online TV programs from major networks like NBC, and customized programs that recommended TV shows they might like. Other desirable widgets accessed weather, news headlines, and on-demand movies.

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