By DON CLARK
LAS VEGAS—A longtime quest to bring the Internet to the living room has entered a new phase, borrowing a page from Apple Inc. and its iPhone.
Companies are now racing to build marketplaces for TV programs that act much like iPhone apps, able to interact with social-networking services, play games, call up movies and other Web content—all using a remote control, rather than a computer equipped with browsers.
The TV applications are designed to exploit new consumer electronics devices with Internet connections that are beginning to appear in homes in significant numbers.
Exhibitors at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show are promoting rival technologies for creating such software and helping users manage their many options on TV screens.
The latest entrants include Vudu Inc., a startup that offers a streaming movie service; DivX Inc., known for a popular format for storing digital movies; Boxee Inc., which offers software that lets users view Internet content on TVs; Roku Inc., which sells a set-top box for receiving Internet content; and Syabas Technology, which announced a set-top box at CES.
Big players from the computer industry also are playing a role. Yahoo Inc., for example, was an early contender with a technology for TV applications it calls widgets.
Vizio Inc., a U.S. TV maker that has been pushing Internet-connected sets, was among the first to use the term apps for TV software. Besides using Yahoo’s widgets, the company worked with Adobe Systems Inc. to adapt the popular Flash format to offer a second ways for developers to write TV apps.
Matthew McRae, vice president of Vizio’s product group, says buyers of its TVs currently can choose from among 25 to 30 applications. “We will exit the year in the hundreds of applications,” he says.
Such efforts have been evolving for more than a decade. Microsoft Corp., for example, in 1997 purchased WebTV Networks Inc., which sold a set-top box with a browser that allowed users to call up Web sites.
That model didn’t catch on. TVs at the time weren’t good at handling text-heavy sites, which were also designed to be called up using keyboards—an option in few living rooms. Web browsers also were seen to be too much like computer software and not enough like TV-style entertainment.
Things changed, gradually. Internet video services began drawing large audiences of PC users. Home users signed up for broadband data services and snapped up high-definition TVs that handle digital content well. Most recently, a new generation of TVs, gaming machines and devices that play Blu-ray disks began appearing that have Internet connections.
What is still missing is the equivalent of Microsoft Windows for the living room, a widely accepted way to write programs that appear and act the same on most TVs. But many companies are trying.
Yahoo in August 2008 announced its plans for widgets—a format for simple programs that appear on a strip at the bottom of a TV screen while traditional programming plays above. It lined up four initial TV makers and tested the widgets to make sure they don’t cause technical problems with TVs.
“There is no such thing as beta software in the TV space,” says Arlo Rose, senior director of product management and design for Yahoo’s TV efforts.
Certifying programs has tended to take longer than expected. Mr. Rose estimates that 25 to 30 widget are available as of CES, with 50 to 70 “in the queue” for certification. Yahoo, which initially has used an invitation-only process for courting developers, intends to open it to all comers, he adds.
Meanwhile, competition is increasing. One new rival is Vudu, which started by offering a set-top box to offer its Internet delivered movies but shifted to offering that service through other hardware partners.
The company this week announced Vudu Apps, which it describes as a platform to deliver Internet software to TVs, Blu-ray players and other products.
Vudu says it already has attracted 100 apps, which appear in a menu that users can call up on the TV screen using a remote. They include versions of Web services like the photo-sharing site Flickr, the music-discovery site Pandora, the microblogging site Twitter and a news feed from the Associated Press. Initial TV makers expected to incorporate the technology are units of Mitsubishi Electric Corp., Sanyo Electronic Co., Sharp Corp. and Toshiba Corp.
DivX, meanwhile, says it has lined LG Electronics as an initial user of its new software platform in LG Blu-ray players. The San Diego-based company also says it has attracted content apps from sites that include Twitter, Daily Motion, Rhapsody and CNET, and says its DivX TV platform can help users find and call up movies and photos stored on computers in the home.
Kevin Hell, DivX’s chief executive, predicts that such technology will start giving consumers hundreds of choices for their TVs that weren’t selected by pay-TV companies—a goal discussed in high-tech circles since the 1990s. “It’s happening,” he says. “This is the year.”
Write to Don Clark at email@example.com