Interactive at Last, Interactive at Last? - Simon Applebaum - MediaBizBlogger

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It seems it's in the DNA of company chief executive officers to make grand pronouncements in public from time to time. Rovi (formerly Macrovision) CEO Fred Amoroso can pronounce with as much relish as his contemporaries, and he offered a doozy when his company celebrated its name change at the NASDAQ Marketsite in New York a few weeks ago.

"We're at the cusp of the most fundamental transformation in home entertainment since the invention of TV," Amoroso said. "Television is becoming a personal thing, and we're repositioning our company for that."

The fundamental transformation Amoroso heralds is the adoption of interactive TV by the public. He's the latest in a long line of CEOs over decades to do so. That's because of all the developments shaping this medium, interactive capability is the most elusive development of all. Just when we've convinced ourselves that this development was ready to fly out of test runs and hit big with the masses, whether with Qube in the late 1970s, teletext in the 1980s, Full Service Network and WorldGate the following decade and numerous approaches since, ITV gets its plug yanked because the technology behind it was uneconomical or incapable of doing what its creators wanted, or because public interest wasn't there.

A few things did survive this on-again, off-again workout. Program guides from cable and satellite operators are interactive (the customer chooses what the guide offers at any moment). Amoroso's company expects to release Liquid, its own ITV-powered entry in the guide marketplace, early next year. Some operators use casual games like Solitaire and Sudoku, caller ID on the TV set and other services as supplemental offerings.

Now we have a new, fast-moving wave of ITV activity, with CEOs like Amoroso suggesting this wave won't flatline like the others. Why should you believe this wave has a chance? Start with a sense that a public now adjusted to doing all sorts of things interactive through the Web can bring those habits to TV if the process is friendly enough. More than 10 million people are interested in buying TV sets with interactive functionality between now and next summer, according to a recent Consumer Electronics Association survey. More importantly, ITV-capable sets are available now from Samsung and Visio, with Panasonic and the other major set makers bound to introduce models by the end of the year. No vaporware at their end.

Another big point: this new ITV movement is taking several directions at once, so there's a better chance something can stick big with customers. Vizio's new set not only offers the ability to watch Facebook, Twitter and eBay content on the screen, it offers the ability to react to that content through a keyboard (on the order of a Blackberry or iPhone) located inside the remote control. Just flip the remote open and key away. That process could be a universe-changer if set makers and remote suppliers make it universally available.

In some circles, TV screen versions of Facebook, Twitter and MySpace represent the avenue to draw people into ITV, then expand their social media horizons with other applications. That's the bet FiOS TV is making. By fall, the majority of FiOS' 2.5 million customers will be able to see Facebook and Twitter material through a new "Widget Bazaar" service. From there, using new open source set-top tech, Verizon's overbuild venture will offer third-party developers the option to hatch its new "Bazaar," in what officials there label the equivalent of the iPhone applications store.

Cable operators intend to give those developers equal opportunity through Tru2Way and EBIF technical specifications, as well as using Adobe's flash animation process in their digital set-top converters. Project Canoe, now gearing up for interactive ad business, may expand its operation for general ITV purposes in the long term.

While you're at it, keep your eye on Google with its Android operating system (good for set-tops as well as mobile phones), Cisco Systems and its set-top unit, and Microsoft, always lurking with ideas on how to expand Xbox home penetration.

This may be interactive TV's time to fly. Goodness knows how long advocates have wanted the runway cleared. With all the companies involved and energy invested lately, we'll know in the next year or so whether Fred Amoroso's declaration turns into an enduring medium, or the latest crash landing of its kind.

Simon Applebaum is host/producer of Tomorrow Will Be Televised, the weekly Internet radio program covering the TV scene. The program runs Mondays at 3 p.m. ET/noon, PT over

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