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Tech industry works to move Web content off PCs

Posted by iNext - 2006-01-07

Yahoo will dramatically leap out of the PC Friday.

At the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the search-engine giant plans to announce a set of popular Yahoo tools - including movie listings, trailers and online music - for televisions. It's free, though it requires the TV be hooked up to a PC running Microsoft's Windows XP or Media Center operating system. The Yahoo tools can be accessed by remote control if the PC has one. Otherwise, users navigate with the regular computer mouse.

The service will also be available to cellphone users with a data connection. They'll be able to use tools such as e-mail, photo sharing, weather and traffic, also free.

Yahoo To Go takes tools that work just fine on a PC into the new and still-glitchy medium of interactive consumer electronics. Rival Google is believed to be announcing similar offerings at CES Friday. Sony, Samsung, Toshiba, Microsoft and many others are plunging in, too. Why take such a risk?

"It's the most natural thing in the world," says Yahoo CEO Terry Semel. "It's all about a connected life - how we take the information we store online ... (and use it) on any device."

These companies agree that the World Wide Web ought not be confined. They're packing the huge CES floor with new products that promise to get the Internet off the desktop and into the real world.

It's a sign the Web is growing up, tech analysts say. High-speed broadband access is replacing clunky dial-up. Consumers are finally becoming comfortable with Internet applications. And business-grade networking technology is getting cheap enough to find its way into consumer electronics, says independent tech analyst Rob Enderle. Plus, the popularity of Apple's iPod digital music player "has made millions of people familiar with the synchronization process" required to get data to many portable devices, says tech analyst Samir Bhavnani at researcher Current Analysis.

Put those factors together, and portable Internet becomes viable for "Mom and Dad" for the first time, Bhavnani says.

The result: new ways of getting and viewing movies, music and television that are revolutionizing the way consumers think about entertainment. The relationship between viewers and content makers is "being turned upside-down, or right-side up," Sony CEO Howard Stringer said in a speech Thursday. "Content is no longer pushed at consumers. Content is pulled down when they want it."

Gadgets galore

Just don't expect it all to work on the first try.

As electronics makers rush to the market, they're putting out a hodgepodge of products that don't necessarily work together. No guarantees that they're easy to use, either. That's normal in a young market, Enderle says.

Still, there are many promising Internet-anywhere goodies on display at CES. Among them:

•Video viewers. Digital music players and online music stores have made it possible for fans to carry huge collections with them, and play them at any time. Now companies are promising the same for video.

Portable media players are everywhere at CES, with Toshiba, Tatung, RCA and others announcing models. Most look like big personal digital assistants (PDAs) and have a computer drive for storing digital data they download from a PC or personal video recorder (PVR). They're used to watch movies and recorded TV shows on the go - such as on an airplane or subway. Announced prices generally range from $300 to $400.

For viewers who want a more immersive experience, a small Bellevue, Wash., company named eMagin displayed a line of video screens that you wear over your eyes, like goggles. The funky-looking shades plug into a PC, video iPod or similar device, and create a large, vivid display that only the wearer can see. Announced prices ranged from $799 to $899, with more later in the year.

•Telephones. It's usually possible to send long-distance phone calls over the Internet for a much lower price than via regular phone lines. The technology isn't new, but using Internet phone service today is often a clunky experience that sometimes requires a special phone to be plugged into a PC. Now that's changing.

Skype, an Internet phone company recently acquired by eBay, and partner Netgear announced a phone that works anywhere there's an accessible wireless Internet, or Wi-Fi, connection. The phone is expected to come out in March. The price has not been announced. (Netgear competitor Linksys also sells a Skype phone, but it works within only a single location, such as a home or office.)

If that's too high-tech, Tucson-based Lagunawave is offering a $20 Internet-phone-service gizmo. Chatter Bug has a short phone cord coming out of one end that gets plugged into a regular phone. The phone line from the wall is then plugged into the Chatter Bug. No special Web connection is needed - the Internet part of the call happens behind the scenes in the telephone network. Chatter Bug users can make unlimited long-distance calls in the USA and Canada for $10 a month. (They must have traditional local phone service.)

Digital-set-top-box manufacturer Digeo demonstrated an Internet phone service that's integrated with cable TV. Features include the ability to play voice mail and see messages through a TV. It's expected to be out in the first half of 2006.

•Enhanced music services. First, digital tunes were on PCs, then on dedicated music players. Now they're hopping to all kinds of devices. Verizon Wireless on Thursday announced a service that allows customers to download songs simultaneously to their cellphones and PCs for $1.99 a song. Or, they can download a song just to their PC for 99 cents. Sprint has a similar service, but it costs more.

Pioneer and Samsung displayed music players that can play and store XM Satellite Radio feeds as well as digital music formats such as MP3s. They will be available later this year.

New York City-based MusicGremlin touted a digital music player that can download tunes directly via Wi-Fi, and thus never needs to be connected to a PC. Songs will cost 99 cents, and the player about $300, when it is launched later this year.

•Home entertainment tools. As consumers accumulate digital movies, music and photos, they will need an easy way to store and play them throughout the house. Devices have been on the market for a few years, but most have been clunky and awkward.

At CES, Hewlett-Packard showed off one of the first media PC lines that actually looks like it belongs in a living room instead of an office. The PCs resemble stereos more than computers and easily hook up to a TV instead of a computer monitor. High-end models start at $1,499.

Thomson launched a remote control for DVD players, stereos and other devices that has Internet access built in. The $299 gadget has a screen that can display an electronic programming guide as well as personalized news, sports and weather. It comes out this spring.

Playing together

Cool gadgets aren't enough to revolutionize digital entertainment. It also takes cooperation between the entertainment companies that provide the content and the Internet companies that provide the Web access, says Current Analysis' Bhavnani.

But there are signs that all three are coming together. Verizon announced a partnership with HP to offer nearly ubiquitous high-speed broadband access for laptops. Microsoft has struck deals with Starz Entertainment and DirecTV to make content available for download to digital devices. Intel is announcing a similar deal with AOL.

And the market may get two more big pushes in the next few days. Larry Page, president of search giant Google, is scheduled to make a speech at CES Friday. The topic is a secret, but tech analysts speculate that Google could announce a digital entertainment service - perhaps downloadable and searchable video feeds.

And Apple - one of the few electronics makers not presenting at CES - is expected to make a splash next week at its own conference, Macworld, in San Francisco. Possible product announcements include a small PC with a TV tuner.

It's a new digital age - with "digital citizenry," says Sony CEO Stringer. As the differences between the Web and TV and movies vanish, consumers and manufacturers will have to grapple with tough questions about "who owns what and who has the right to own what," he says. It has already been a problem for Sony, which drew the ire of music fans after it put invasive anti-piracy software on some CDs.

Even though the shift to a new era can be tough, it's inevitable - and a good thing, says Yahoo's Semel. "This is a way to fully enhance the (entertainment) experience," he says. "This is a step up."

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