With web-based TV widgets, Yahoo will televise 'The Internet Revolution'

If Yahoo has its way, cable boxes will go the way of the dodo -- thanks to the company's new Internet-ready TV widget ecosystem.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

If Yahoo has its way, cable boxes will go the way of the dodo -- thanks to the company's new Internet-ready TV widget ecosystem.

At least that's the sentiment I perceived as Russ Shafer, senior director of marketing, connected TV and desktop, spoke about Yahoo's widget architecture for televisions at Yahoo's Open Hack Day 2009 in New York City.

"We're combining the best of broadcast TV today...with the best of the Internet," he said.

His title is indicative of the trend: "Connected TV and desktop" hints that the "third screen" -- television, after computers and mobile phones -- is on its way toward complete networked integration with the first two.

Like a widget on a computer desktop or, recently, a mobile phone, Yahoo's TV widgets pull in Internet content from popular partners: Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, RallyCast (sports), Twitter, Blockbuster, Showtime, eBay, CBS (parent company of this site) and others.

If you've got digital cable, the system is like a high-definition, web-ready version of the channel guide and interface that your local cable company may already provide.

However, this connected version means you can do much more beyond picking channels and reading a blurb about the show that's on. Instead, you can rent a movie, Tweet about what you're watching using a virtual keyboard (probably best for live events -- awards shows, political speeches), or in the case of watching sports, talk trash with your buddies without picking up the phone.

"You can actually keep track of [other sports teams] while you're watching the live game," Schafer said. "You can also talk smack with your buddies during the game."

The widget ecosystem has already been rolled out to Samsung, Sony and LG, and will arrive on Vizio TVs in November with a unique perk -- a Bluetooth remote with a slider keyboard.

Suddenly, it doesn't seem so impossible that one day, your smartphone may also control your television-computer device. (In fact, one Yahoo representative hinted at the possibility of using outside keyboards "in the 2011, 2012 products.")

Yahoo said it plans to announce more TV manufacturers next year. The addition of Vizio is notable because it marks the first time such technology is available on a television with a three-digit price tag, hinting at the trickle-down effect that's sure to come to lower-priced televisions.

The widget engine and ecosystem is based on the company's Konfabulator engine that's been around for years.

"We've taken that experience and designed it for a TV," Schafer said. "It's a UI framework based on a remote. All you need to know is up, down, left, right."

You can download apps -- which are two to four megabytes each -- via a "gallery, which is like Apple's App Store," Schafer said.

"Now when you open it up, your Twitter account can be there...same thing with eBay," he said. "The application in a sense can have a connection with the web-based version that we use to access it."

When asked about pushing content to the TV, one unnamed Yahoo representative said it worked like a browser, in terms of approaching the API and server-side push.

"There is no way for a server to talk directly to the television -- for security and complexity, such as getting through home firewalls," the representative said, adding that there's no HTML rendering and that it's Javascript that's "underneath the hood."

He also said the company was looking into using Flash video, and already supports H.264 and WMV formats, as well as an array of audio (wav, mp3, aac, etc.).

For now, there's no widget-to-widget communication, the representative said.

When asked about interoperability with other companies' efforts, Schafer justified Yahoo's effort with the open nature of the system.

"Any publisher can bring their widget to the platform," Schafer said. "It's completely open."

As for the convergence of the three screens, it's just around the corner.

"If the widget engine knows about it, there's no reason your laptop can't know about it," the unnamed representative said. "It would require some software on your laptop, but if you went in and typed in the IP address of your TV, that's something that could happen."

It just takes a little diplomacy between old and new technology.

"The set top box is actually doing the channel changing...so the television doesn't know what channel you're watching," the representative said. "We're actually exploring a number of technologies so that we can figure out what TV program is being played based on the characteristics of the TV signal -- like Shazam for music."

To spur development, Yahoo said it would give away a widgetized LG TV to someone at Hack Day who develops the best widget during the conference.

"Over 3,000 developers have signed up to get a development kit to date," Schafer said.

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