Weekend Tech Scan: Apple, Google, and Microsoft in fight for TV

Rumors, upgrades, and Steve Ballmer's bark are all factors in the coming smackdown for your viewing pleasures

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AppleTV's current unit is sleek enough to fit in your hand. What might lie ahead?

Rumors, upgrades, and Steve Ballmer's bark are all factors in the coming smackdown for your viewing pleasures

Two views of the future of home TV emerged this past week: one, a tantalizing hint from the late Steve Jobs, and the other an announcement from arch-rival Google, which once again taking a turn at bat with its lambasted Google TV system.  Other companies including Microsoft, Roku, Boxee and, again, Apple are ceding ground to no one.

The battle for your attention — and control of your living room TV — is on.

The Apple conversation stems from a quote in “Steve Jobs,” the new Walter Isaacson biography of the late, lamented Apple co-founder and CEO. Jobs was quoted as saying, “I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synched with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

And the trap door to Pandora’s Box sprung open with a fearful noise. As quoted by CNET, well known media analyst Gene Munster speculated on exactly what Jobs meant. His take: a combination of the voice-activated Siri function in the new iPhone 4S to control a new Apple TV and the emergence of the new Apple iCloud storage for all your Apple media purchases. He also noted, according to Broadcast Engineering, that Apple has been working on a TV prototype at least since last September. CBS, via a Bloomberg report, already has named the person in charge of a still unconfirmed project: Jeff Robbins, a star Apple engineer lionized for his work on the iPod and the iTunes store. Expect much more chatter about this topic.

This, then, leads us to the much-maligned Google TV set top box for high-definition TV sets, which for over a year has promised it would change the face of television by combining the power of the Internet with “live” TV. Late this week, Google officially announced Google TV 2.0: technology that had been seen only briefly last May at a Google development conference and the subject of leaked photos and rumors ever since.

Beginning soon, owners of Logitech Revue systems, Google’s choice for a stand-alone Google TV operation, and Sony TV sets with built in Google TV software, will finally see the updates on their TV screens.  

All Things D’s Ina Fried reported that the new Google TV push is designed to complement rather than replace broadcast TV. Google does not see its TV system being part of the “cut the cord” movement; e.g., finding alternate program sources and “cutting the cord” to cable TV.

Google also announced a major revamp to You Tube (which it owns): the addition of more than 100 channels of original content, reportedly adding roughly 25 hours of original content from diverse sources inclucing celebrities and media companies, with offerings ranging from the The Wall Street Journal to Jay-Z and Madonna. The content is said to appeal to niche audiences such as animal lovers and music fans. 

Google’s checkered history began a year ago when it introduced Google TV to great fanfare — the device that supposedly would give us a workable solution for bringing together TV and the Internet on one screen — only to see its search technology blocked by virtually every TV network — meaning you could search for a TV show episode on a website but you would receive a message telling you “your device is blocked.”  Meanwhile, as we reported last November, Google TV was saddled with a complex on-set interface, and users balked at the full sized and complex keyboard required to operate the device. 

Google TV went through an embarrassing crash earlier this year. The Logitech Revue was returned by stores to Logitech in droves, the price was eventually lowered to a stunningly low $99 from its original $299 retail cost, Logitech reportedly took a $34 million writedown and its CEO had to resign. Sony, another Google TV partner, saw its heavily promoted Google TV/Bravia sets gathering dust on shelves; they have been heavily discounted during the last year.

The revised system is based on Honeycomb (3.1), the latest Android tablet technology, and will include access to the Android Market, that storehouse of 200,000 apps created for Android devices, to Google TV users.  Reportedly, the rollout also includes a handful of apps specifically designed for the upgrade. Wired Magazine has an advanced look at the upgraded system. I’ll offer my own review of the updated system soon.

Meanwhile, as we've been reporting in these pages, Microsoft is busy, and highly visibly so, expanding its Xbox gaming console into the home TV set top box of tomorrow. With Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer highly and loudly visible in his promotion of the expanded capabilities of the Xbox, the company has announced 40 different entertainment companies in 20 countries will start making content available for Xbox. What this means in practical terms, no one quite knows. And how much will all this goodness cost?

There’s also this similarity with the rumored Apple TV: a voice-activated control system. The Microsoft setup already has its Kinect voice-and-movement activated Xbox controller as an integral part of its makeup. Apple’s heavy promotion of its Siri voice-activated feature for the iPhone 4S would certainly lead to speculation that an Apple  buyer would readily take to am Apple TV if Siri played a leading role in its operation.

(In the new bio, Jobs was also quoted as lashing out against a Microsoft employee who was touting his company’s efforts to produce a tablet. The book quotes him as saying, ““F--k it, let’s show him what a tablet can really be.” Thus, allegedly, was the birth of the iPad. Could Microsoft reverse-engineer that sentiment and turn the Kinect, which already does so much, into something, you should pardon the expression, insanely great?)

Apple’s approach would probably be an all-in-one solution with everything built into a single TV unit.  Most of the innovations these days, however, are coming from set top boxes.

For those not familiar with the concept, a set top box is any device that adds different capabilities to your TV set such as more TV channels. The prototypical unit is your cable TV box (assuming you still have cable service) that brings you local TV channels, a mix of free and premium channels (CNN, HBO) and a slew of TV episodes and movies on demand. Set top boxes, however, are also the generic name for additional devices, each with their own special twist on what they think you would like to see, hear or do. 

Roku, for example, is an inexpensive add-on box, prices starting at $59, that brings you high-definition access to Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Hulu Plus, audio services including Pandora, Internet information channels like CNET, the live Al Jazeera English TV news service, and over 300 channels of both good and oddball stuff for your viewing and listening pleasure (e.g., Hondu TV, The Mormon Channel, Y’All Wire, Demand The Outdoors, Sportskool Yoga, and even some porn). You can also play the “Angry Birds” game on your TV with the newest $99 Roku 2 XS: obviously the precursor of on-screen playable games to be made available via Roku. I’ve selected 36 channels on my Roku; most are free, some carry with them a monthly subscription fee.

Meanwhile, Apple TV — that’s the little $99 box that is already a set top box but with limited functions — recently received a software upgrade (Version 4.4.2). In addition to offering Netflix and movies and TV from its own iTunes store, it’s offering any films, TV shows or music that you’ve stored in Apple’s new iCloud service.  It’s added the live TV feed of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ Live), subscription sports channels for baseball, football, and hockey live broadcasts, and through its AirPlay feature, allegedly lets you see anything on your iPad 2 or iPhone 4S — any app, book, program, etc. — up on your big HDTV screen (e.g., mirroring). 

If you can do all this now, what do you think the rumored Apple TV of the future would do? What of Apple’s 500,000 games/apps/music/TV would compete with all the hundreds of TV channels that a full-fledged Apple TV would need to bring? 

Boxee, one of the least appreciated set top boxes, has added several new features including updates to its iPad app, and has added a number of streams including Glenn Beck’s GBTV network, the Spotify music service, and WSJ Live.

By the way, don’t think that other offshore companies aren’t listening and watching this set top box dialog. A Chinese company called Hisense has announced plans to offer a “smart TV” with gesture recognition. The device has a 2D camera that can pick up on hand gestures enabling users to, and I quote, “control basic TV functions, without having to move out of the comfortable viewing position to reach the remote control.”

That sounds suspiciously like what the Kinect does, albeit in a less sophisticated form. And lest I forget, the system is designed on an Android platform, meaning the Hisense box could be a small step away from being able to offer the Android Market and all those apps.

Do I detect a pattern here?

This story has been updated since it first appeared.


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