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Browsers vs. Widgets: The Battle to Bring Internet Video to Your TV

January 14, 2010 , , , ,

I spent a lot of time at CES talking to companies that are trying to bring Internet video to your TV. Looking back, two types of companies emerged: Browser companies and Widget companies.

Browsers vs. Widgets

Browser companies are companies who see no difference between accessing video on a traditional computer monitor and accessing it on a TV. As far as they are concerned, if you are using a computer to access content on the Internet it should not matter if you are watching it on a screen classified as a monitor or a screen classified as a TV (or, for that matter, how far away you are sitting from the screen). This allows Browser companies to make all the video on the web available to users.

Although this worldview has a certain geeky appeal, unfortunately for the Browser companies many of the Internet video providers see a profound difference between watching videos on a computer monitor and watching videos on a TV (recall Boxee’s problems with Hulu and Popcorn Hour’s problems with YouTube). In both of these cases, the video providers argued that their Terms of Service limited viewing to computer monitors, and prohibited TV screens.

This is where Widget companies come in. These companies partner with video content providers (often paying a fee for the privilege). In return, the Widget companies can tightly integrate the provider’s video content into the on-screen menu. More importantly, the Widget companies can be confident that the content providers will not change the Terms of Service one day and shut off access to the content. By way of example, Roku is a company that fits into the Widget category.

And the winner is . . .

I’m not sure which of these approaches will ultimately prevail. I am sure that browser companies should at least be able to play the game. Their belief that a monitor is a monitor, even if it is a TV, makes all the sense in the world.

From a practical standpoint, anyone can hook up a computer to a TV and watch Internet video with a “desktop” experience. In fact, many modern HDTVs have a “D-sub” input labeled as a “PC input.” This input allows a TV to function exactly the same as a monitor.

Just because a company makes it easier to navigate around the Internet from my couch (with the type of 10-foot experience that many of the Browser companies offer) should not mean that I can’t use their browser to watch Internet video. As the difference between monitors and TVs continues to erode, video providers trying to restrict access will have to start defining prohibited screens in terms of how far a user is sitting from the screen. Not only does this make no sense, but it is all but impossible to determine with any degree of reliability.

Unfortunately, just because Browser companies should be allowed to play the game does not mean that it is going to be easy. Browser companies and video providers are involved in a cat and mouse game that shows no signs of ending soon. That being said, the geek in me is rooting for the Browser with its lack of gatekeepers and easy access to an Internet full of video.

The pragmatists in me thinks that the Widget companies have a compelling case. By making its smaller pool of videos easier (and more reliable) to access, they potentially have a broader appeal. If I am giving an Internet video solution to a non-geek friend or family member, I might prefer to know that it is just going to work – even at the expense of depth of content.

Eventually this race will have a winner. Some company (or group of companies) will build up a large enough install base that distributors will view them as capable of delivering a compelling and reliable revenue stream. At that point, be they Browsers or Widgets, these companies will get access to all of the content that they want.

Some people may wonder if there really has to be a winner. Although I don’t necessarily think that the winner will vanquish the loser from the face of the earth, I do think that only one model will be viable on a large commercial scale. Here is why. Widget companies are paying video providers for access to their content. Browser companies are not. Widget companies will (rightly) ask video providers why they are paying to access content that Browser companies are getting for free. If the Widget companies win, they will insist that video providers cut off reliable access by Browser companies. If Browser companies win, Widget companies will just stop paying for access to the video provider content and turn themselves into Browser companies. Widget companies may continue to pay a lesser amount for formal coordination and tighter integration with video companies, but open APIs could reduce the necessity of this as well.

Obviously, this entire dynamic raises a number of questions. What does it mean for innovators, consumers, and creators if Widgets win? What about if Browsers win? Which model is most supportive of an open Internet? Should one win out over another? One thing to be certain of is that Public Knowledge will keep all of these questions in mind as we watch this space unfold in the next few months.