The iTV Doctor Is In!: Vizio's Internet Apps

iTV Doctor

Dear Readers:

Like many of you, I was astounded by the Vizio commercial during the 2010 Super Bowl--robots grabbing Beyonce and a handful of Web sites and dropping them into a TV set. We've certainly seen our share of trade and consumer press about Yahoo! Widgets and other applications that are baked into high-end television sets. But press releases are a long way from spending a couple million bucks on a TV spot. Note that that same spot is getting substantial exposure during NBC's Olympic extravaganza.

So, with the guidance of some of the doctor's industry advisors (thanks, gang) I reached out to the Vizio folks to get a sense of their product strategy, and how that fits into the acceleration of interactive television in our cable/satellite/telco world. A Vizio spokesman assisted with much of the following information.

The iTV Doctor

 

1) Which models and price points will feature the Vizio Internet Apps, and when will they be available?

The Vizio sets will be available at Vizio.com by month's end: 42" ($1,199), 47" ($1,799) and 55" ($2,199). Current Vizio products are available at Costco.com, Amazon.com and Dell.com (but not Best Buy--see below).

2) We see Verizon using their FiOS widgets to differentiate themselves from cable and satellite. Do you think Internet Apps will differentiate Vizio from other HDTV manufacturers?

Vizio's Super Bowl investment, as well as their online merchandising, clearly suggests they believe Internet Apps are a critical product feature in the battle for the living room. They are currently offering Twitter, eBay, Flickr, and Yahoo! News/Weather/Sports/Finance, along with music from Rhapsody and video from Vudu, Netflix and Amazon. Adobe Flash and the Yahoo! Widget Engine are the drivers.

But my own experience at the local Best Buy suggests that that strategy may be a bit premature. With a dozen high-end sets on display (Best Buy does not carry Vizio) in their Magnolia Home Theater showroom, an embarrassed salesman discovered that a very small number of the sets were connected to the Internet, and those that were hadn't been "set up" to display the various Yahoo! and branded widgets. His defense was: "You're the first guy who has ever asked to see that stuff. People buy for the picture, man."

3) How do the Vizio sets with Internet Apps work with cable and/or satellite set-top boxes? Are we asking consumers to juggle yet another remote control?

While understanding that remote control juggling skills skew towards a younger male demographic, the Vizio folks have developed a snazzy Bluetooth smart remote ("smart" is probably an understatement here--"genius" is more to the point) that apparently can be programmed to handle set-top box functions for all multichannel distributors, including navigation through on-screen iTV applications. And because the Vizio remote has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, we may see the end of soft-keyboard and triple-tap alpha-numeric inputs.

And taking a page from the Doctor's wish list, Vizio is working on an iPhone app that will essentially loop from the mobile device to the Internet down to the Vizio set and back, to enable a fascinating consumer experience that all but eliminates the need for a remote control.

4) What's the business model for Vizio Internet Apps?

While maintaining the predictable "we don't discuss product or service plans," Vizio states that this is all about "bringing the best entertainment experience" to the consumer. Yet, by definition, the Netflix and Amazon video services have a revenue model, and the Internet access provided by the Yahoo! Widget Engine certainly can easily accommodate advertising and ecommerce opportunities.

5) Can the Vizio Internet Apps enhance programming coming from a set-top box?

This may be the high-wire act for Vizio and all television manufacturers (note that Vizio has no plans to enable tru2way in their sets). In point of fact, with the signal coming in over HDMI (or component, or even channel 3), the set simply reads the incoming signal as "video," making all this terrific capability of limited value to programmers and advertisers. As my Best Buy buddy stated, "it's all about the picture." People buy television sets for the picture. They watch television for the programming. If the programming has embedded (or bound, or linked) interactive content AND PROMOTES THAT TO THE VIEWER, we'll get enough viewer participation to make this work.

As much as I love the sizzle of standalone widgets and apps, the real power comes from promoting the applications to the viewers in an intuitive one-click environment. When the programmer (with the help of the distributor) can PUSH a trigger within the program or commercial, viewer participation goes up. Period.

The solution is straightforward, as it often is in our business: with satisfactory business terms in place, the distributor can expose to Vizio and other CE manufacturers the necessary API's from the program guide to let the set know what the viewer is watching. Because the set-top box can't talk directly to the television set, but they can both access the Internet, it may be an Internet round-trip linking the unique set-top ID to the unique television ID.

If the end result is more consumers having a better experience, it's probably worth the effort.

 

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The iTV Doctor is *Rick Howe*, who provides interactive television consulting services to programmers and advertisers. He is the recipient of a CTAM Tami Award for retention marketing and this year was nominated to Cable Pioneers. He is also the co-author of a patent for the use of multiscreen mosaics in EPG's. Endorsed by top cable and satellite distributors, "Dr" Howe still makes house calls, and the first visit is always free. His services include product development, distribution strategy and the development of low-cost interactive applications for rapid deployment across all platforms. Have a question for the iTV Doctor? Email him at itvdoctor@itvt.com

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