Watching television may soon be more about logging on than tuning in.
A growing number of devices aim to bridge the gap between TV and the Internet, bringing into your living room everything from dancing-cat videos on YouTube to streaming movies.
It has always been possible to connect a computer to a television set with the right equipment and know-how. But now, technology giants such as Google and Apple are trying to make it easy and cheap to bring web content to your TV.
Products such as the newly updated Apple TV, soon-to-be-released Google TV and Boxee Box will sit next to your VCR or cable box with the ability to access popular online services such as Netflix, iTunes and YouTube.
U.S.-based Boxee, which started as an open-source software project for people with PCs connected to their TVs, is about to launch the Boxee Box with hardware maker D-Link. The company's Andrew Kippen says the goal is the create something everyone can use.
"The software, if you're a little techie and don't mind hooking up your computer to your TV and connecting your audio up, then that's a good solution," says Kippen.
"For people who maybe aren't that tech savvy, the Boxee Box is good for those people who have invested a lot of money already in their living rooms."
For the most part, Internet-enabled video devices - sometimes referred to as net-top boxes, IPTV or media centres - can play video files downloaded from the Internet or shot with a personal digital camera, but their main focus is streaming online content.
For example, Apple TV and Boxee Box can connect to Netflix, which recently launched in Canada offering online subscriptions to movies and TV shows. Google TV also is expected to support the service.
The devices often can run additional apps as well, so users can connect to other content from TV networks and video-sharing websites. Apple TV, naturally, focuses on iTunes content.
But don't expect these devices to spell the end of cable TV, at least not quite yet, say industry observers.
Kippen says a few users might look to online content to replace their traditional cable service but he doesn't think many will pull the cable in favour of Boxee Box.
"I would say that depends on the user. I think there's still a lot of cable content that's not available online, especially looking at things like HBO and Showtime and ESPN, they're not willing to jeopardize the cash they get through those cable subscriptions," he says. Kippen.
"However, if you've grown up with the Internet, where you're already watching a lot entertainment on Hulu or Netflix, this is the next evolution of taking that from the laptop onto the TV screen."
Duncan Stewart, a technology analyst with Deloitte Canada Research, says there are a number of factors standing in the way of widespread adoption.
Many Canadian Internet users are familiar with the disappointment of learning popular online video services can't be viewed in Canada. That same problem exists when bringing the web to TV.
Also a problem are the usage caps imposed by Internet providers, which fix the amount of data a user can download each month. Shaw's High-Speed Light service, for example, sets a limit of 13 gigabytes per month. One HD movie downloaded through iTunes for Apple TV can be more than three gigabytes.
None can rival traditional cable or movie rentals, which offer more choice, available sooner. Stewart says research from the U.S. suggests users who drop cable for the Internet don't hold out long.
"There are number of people in the U.S. who look at their cable bill and they rip the cable out of the wall and they go out and get one of these," he says.
"And they do it for a month or two or three months or four months, but then, after a period of time, what overwhelmingly appears to be happening is people go, 'I want to watch "blank," and, whatever it is, isn't available on these, and they go back."
For the foreseeable future, he says such devices will remain the realm of early adopters willing to test out new technology.
"Until there is an emerging standard that's easy to use, that has almost all the content available that people want at the time that people want it, penetration of these devices is going to be limited."
Another technology analyst, Iain Grant of SeaBoard Group, agrees selection will be a major barrier but suggests some customers will opt for online if they think they can save money.
"You'll not get Hockey Night in Canada live, and news might not get delivered, but (it offers) a tempting saving I think for many," Grant writes in an e-mail.
If that happens, Grant predicts traditional cable companies will be forced to respond and either ensure their services can compete or join the move online.
"Cable will respond, pay-for-view over cable will improve, the user interface will get better, bundles will place more value on Internet connection and less on tiers of programming," he says.
"That is the path for cable's salvation. Shaw, Rogers, Videotron - all have many of the right elements. (Apple CEO) Steve Jobs' push might be all they need to start their metamorphosis."
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