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TV may be a tougher challenge

January 10, 2007|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — At the world's biggest technology trade show this week, industry behemoths such as Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp. are touting the myriad ways to marry PCs and TVs.

But Apple Computer Inc. stole some of the Consumer Electronics Show's limelight Tuesday with its own device to do just that. The question is whether Apple can translate the buzz it so expertly builds around its product launches into the sort of market dominance it enjoys with its iPod.

Analysts expect the nascent market for devices such as AppleTV to grow in the coming years as online video offerings proliferate. Bridging the gap between the PC and TV has long been tricky -- and no one knows whether linking the two will pay off.

And if it does, will there be room for so many competing technologies?

"Apple has made its products sexy and trendy, not just from a form factor but how it's developed," said Sean Badding, president of the Carmel Group research firm. "That's what you'll continue to see.... It's not just an attractive piece of hardware, but a user interface that makes it an easy, close-up friendly experience. That's Apple's take."

Other analysts said devices already connected to the TV have a distinct advantage.

"Even though everything Apple touches is supposed to turn to gold, trying to persuade consumers to get a new set-top box just to get access to iTunes content is, I think, going to be very difficult," said Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff, explaining that single-function set-top boxes are unpopular with consumers. "Everybody who's tried to do that has failed."

It's precisely this advantage that Microsoft is counting on. It used the high-profile opening keynote by Chairman Bill Gates to showcase the abilities of its Xbox 360 game console to deliver movies and television programs via the Internet.

The 10.4 million households that own the device can download high-definition versions of CBS television shows, as well as games, through the Xbox Live online store. About 5 million people have used Xbox Live. This year, Microsoft Entertainment and Devices Division President Robbie Bach said the company would roll out a full television service in partnership with telecommunications companies such as AT&T Inc., British Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, C-Com in France and Swisscom.

Unlike traditional cable or satellite services, television that is delivered via the Internet requires no tuner -- therefore, viewers can watch multiple video feeds at once. And like the Internet itself, it allows for two-way communications -- so friends in far-flung cities can watch a bowl game and talk to each other via voice over Internet technology similar to that popularized by services such as Skype.

Sony, meanwhile, plans a different approach. Sony Electronics Inc. President Stan Glasgow introduced a "module" that brings Internet video streams to the new Bravia 2007 television sets. With this device, viewers can use their television remote control to watch selected online content, such as music videos or classic TV shows.

Lesser-known technology companies, such as Sling Media, showcased a technology for delivering Web-based content, or videos stored on a computer, to the TV. Its product, Slingbox, allows people to use the Internet to watch its TV shows from anywhere in the world, via their laptops or cellphones.

A new product unveiled at the electronics show, SlingCatcher, has a feature that wirelessly moves movies or other PC-based content off the computer and onto the home TV.

Mike Vorhaus, managing director of Frank N. Magid Associates, a media consultancy, said there was a reason that the show was dominated by video this year, rather than traditional electronic gadgetry.

"That's what the consumer wants," Vorhaus said. "The consumer wants a lot of video. First and foremost, they like the TV screen, then the PC and laptop screen, and the last screen they like is the cellphone. We've done extensive studies on that."

dawn.chmielewski@latimes .com

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