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Technology

The iTV promise

Last Updated September 15, 2006

Riding a wave of blog and chat-room buzz, Apple sharpened its focus on entertainment this week with releases ranging from a portable music player that can hold an entire family's music collection, to an iPod not much bigger than a postage stamp, to a movie download service. Yet the most intriguing news was a sneak peek at a gadget that won't be available for several months.

It's a compact silver box with an unassuming name — iTV.

And it has the potential to spark a social revolution that could be felt by everyone from power brokers in corporate boardrooms to those lounging in bunny slippers in their living rooms.

Apple doesn't always hit the nail squarely on the head with new technology, but it tends to do three things well. It knows how to make its electronic gear stand out and grab the attention of the average person. It has mastered the art of plug-and-play and can make complex technology easy to use. And it runs rings around most companies when it comes to marketing to the masses. It's surprising, for example, how many people think Apple invented the portable digital music player (if you're one of them, the SaeHan Information Systems/Eiger Labs MPMan shipped about three years before the first iPod).

What does all that have to do with the iTV, bunny slippers and a pending entertainment revolution?

Simple. Apple's upcoming gadget is designed to bridge the divide between the den and the living room, sending a wireless stream of digital video from a home computer to a television set. And Apple's three specialties are essential ingredients when it comes to selling this idea to the average viewer.

Streaming video sounds like something that should be an easy pitch now that computers have become as common as toasters and many homes have wireless Wi-Fi networks. Downloading files to a computer is a snap and internet video is gaining momentum (just look at the success of sites like youtube.com), but who wants to watch a TV show, clip or movie at their desk? The desire to stream video to a television in a room where you can curl up on a couch is natural.

While the desire may be there, selling streaming video systems to the masses has turned out to be difficult. Companies ranging from Prismiq (which recently went out of business) to Microsoft have been trying to build such a bridge between PCs and TVs for years, with little mass-market success. None have been able to nail the right combination of picture quality, simplicity, usability and affordability. Consequently, they haven't been able to capture the imagination of non-techie viewers, at least in large numbers.

Enter Apple. With its new little gadget, it's aiming to do for digital video what iPods and iTunes have done for downloadable audio. In other words, it removes the geeks-only stigma surrounding digital video downloads by offering a convenient way to get them to the living room.

Make it easy for people to get content on demand through the iTunes store and other sources, and also make it easy for them to view it in comfort instead of being stuck in front of a computer monitor. That scenario has the potential to change popular entertainment, in much the same way that Napster and others of its ilk changed the way people get music.

The development would affect big broadcasters who, despite personal video recorders and pay-per-view, have had a solid lock on the viewing public. It would create fallout for video rental chains and traditional broadcast advertising. It would change the habits of viewers themselves who, given the ability to choose downloadable video anywhere, anytime, might show traditional on-air, cable and satellite broadcasters the same cold shoulder they've been giving lately to bricks-and-mortar music stores.

The iTV system may well fall as flat as Prismiq and others that have come before it. Apple is going to have to offer a lot more than the 75 Disney movies that is iTunes movie download service launched with at the same time the iTV was unveiled, for example, if it wants to whip up interest from viewers. But if any company has the combination of engineering savvy and marketing flair needed to lend mass-market appeal to the merger of the computer, internet and living-room television, it's Apple.

The combination of iTunes and iPods has given consumers a taste of what the internet can do for home entertainment, turning the music world on its head. Will iTV catch on the same way, helping to drive downloadable video from the den to the living room in the average home? Stay tuned.

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