Red-hot trends: Web-enabled TVs sweeping CES 2009

After the full day of press conferences preceding the opening of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), there's one big trend that keeps coming up from every electronics company hawking their wares to the press corps. They all are cranking out TVs that can easily link up to the web.

While we've seen a trickle of attempts, plans and half-hearted hookups to the internet in the past couple of years, this year at CES, that trickle has turned into a torrent. Web connectivity is at the top of the hype list for Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, Sharp, and Toshiba. Why are they all so eager to make it easy for TV viewers to access online content from their living rooms?

That's easy: because viewers want it. A Toshiba executive told us that of all the consumers able to connect to RSS services using Toshiba's Internet-connected TVs, an astonishing 25% of them connected and began receiving feeds. That's a remarkable acceptance rate for technology that didn't even exist a couple of years ago. Because of such heightened interest, we think in a matter of two to three years, it'll be hard to find a TV that doesn't have these web-enabled features.

Sure, people could go to websites using their computers in what's commonly called a "lean forward" experience, but what about going to many of those same web destinations in the living room, when they're kicking back in "lean back" mode? People are changing, and so are websites. Web content is not all "lean forward" content any more. Examples? Think YouTube videos, websites offering full TV episodes in HD, and Netflix replacing truckloads of red envelopes with reliable electronic bandwidth and a website.

Viewers are becoming increasingly interested in that sweet concept, which reflects a larger trend: all television is headed this way. Why settle for 500 channels of cable TV when you can have 5 million channels on the web? Manufacturers such as Sony, LG, Samsung and the other giants know this, and they're making it easy for users to snag this content right from a TV set with no computer in sight.

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Who are the enablers here? The two big names in this mass exodus keep coming up in nearly every press event: Yahoo Widgets, with its Widget Channel Framework bridging the gap between conventional broadcast/cable television and the web with clever user interfaces written by Yahoo and third parties; and YouTube (owned by Google). So there they are, two of the biggest players on the web making it easy for that mother lode of viewers, now glued to network TV and traditional cable, to begin their enormous diaspora to the World Wide Promised Land.

The loser? Look out, Blu-ray. Bandwidth is increasing and video compression is improving, making it easier to whisk huge video files into most living rooms from anywhere in the world. Even the lowly TV set is getting web-friendly, while set-top boxes that can play downloaded and streamed video files are explosively proliferating. Blu-ray's not going to dominate the industry as its predecessor DVD did, because web-connected TVs and their piggybacking brothers, the set-top boxes, will end the Blu-ray revolution — not with a bang, but with a whimper.