What'll Be the Breakout Star That Links TV to Net?

From Boxee to Apple TV, Slew of New Products Promise Smooth Transition and Expanded Offerings. Here's What to Expect

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- Remember WebTV, the uber-hot, mid-'90s gadget that consisted of a box and a keyboard that hooked into your TV and brought the web right into your living room -- all at incredibly slow dial-up-modem speed and a premium price of $300 for the box and $20 per month for the service?

Since then, electronics, cable, telecom, hardware, software and media companies have been struggling with the promise and problems of internet- connected TV. Now, thanks to a confluence of factors -- ubiquitous broadband, changing viewer habits and cheaper tech parts -- internet TV is on the verge of a breakout. However, there are still too many interested parties trying to play a part in making a seamless connection -- and nabbing a piece of the payoff.

"It's completely feasible to create, but it's just the question of who dares to do it," said Forrester analyst James McQuivey.

It's not just a power struggle between hardware makers who can make the boxes and content owners afraid of opening up their content and revenue stream. It's also the cable and telephone companies that own the wires, plus a whole slew of entrepreneurs with better, faster ideas who see an opportunity to make money.

This time, though, consumer demand could reach the tipping point. Some 2.5 million households would be willing to pay $100 more for a web-connected TV, according to a recent Parks Associates' study.

This sub-$100 box is also called the Netflix Player. That's because until recently, that's all it could be used for. Roku just signed a deal to offer video-on-demand titles via Amazon 1-Click purchasing. A Roku spokesman said it will offer 10 new channels by the end of the year and continue to expand its offering with "everything from user-generated content to photo-sharing services to premium, ad-supported content from a wide variety of partners."

Love the budget price tag for the box and promised future content, but concerned about the still-slim current offerings.

Sling Media became a media darling "way" back in 2004, when its original Slingbox allowed consumers to watch TV on PCs -- basically the opposite of what we're talking about here. However, not one to let a trend get ahead of it, Sling has created a new $200 SlingCatcher that includes the ability to "project" PC content onto a TV.

Great add-on feature to an already great product. A tad clunky, as the laptop has to be physically near the TV, and offers no TV controls. Still, relatively cheap and easy set up.

xbox 360
Video gamers who own these boxes have been getting web content on their TVs for a while, but it's still a limited offering. At Xbox Live Marketplace, console owners can pay with points to rent games, movies and TV shows. And the new Xbox Experience did add Netflix "Watch Instantly" support. Sony's PlayStation offers games, plus movies and TV shows to rent (although fewer of the latter two than Xbox ).

Consoles are expensive (if you already have one, move up it to 3 stars) and content is still limited, with no announced promise of broader open web access.

At the beginning of the year, Boxee was asked by Hulu to be removed from its offering, which it eventually was. Boxee is a free open-source software app still in alpha testing, available on Macs and in invite-only form on Windows. The software uses the home network so users can watch web content directly on their TVs. Boxee CEO Avner Ronen told All Things Digital a beta launch is planned for this summer.

Free is definitely the big appeal, but media-owner heavy-handedness will likely continue to be a content problem in the short-term, and maybe longer.

Somewhere between Roku and Slingbox is Vudu, an independent Silicon Valley start-up that has struck deals with movie studios and others for content, with an emphasis on HD. Its price falls in the middle, at $149. The movie and TV content work much like video on demand, with Vudu owners renting or buying movies at set prices. Vudu also has 120 web channels with content from YouTube, Flickr and Pandora, as well as selections provided by networks such as ABC, CBS, Nickelodeon and Discovery.

Good selection of web content and good stable of movie and TV content, but future strength relies on continued content build-out and consumer buy-in.

Apple TV
The promise of Apple TV -- a pet project of CEO Steve Jobs -- was high when launched in early 2007. But the $299 price tag and Apple-limited content resulted in little traction and some complaints. The second version, released in early 2008, had a lower price of $229 and got better reviews but still plenty of apathy. Consumers can access any iTunes content on their TVs but not much else besides YouTube, because of Apple's notoriously closed system. Tvpredictions.com analyst Phil Swann predicted Apple TV will disappear this year, thanks in part to the struggling economy.

Unless another retool opens up the platform and brings many new content partners, widespread adoption isn't likely.

Connected TV
Yahoo has hooked up with a handful of partners including Intel, Samsung and AT&T for this widget-based web-to-TV content experience. Yahoo created the software and convinced consumer-electronics makers to add it to their proprietary chip sets inside TV sets. Samsung's first TVs with the capability -- branded as [email protected] -- are shipping now. The idea is much like Apple's App Store: Users will be able to push a button on their new Samsung or Sony TV remote (later this year), and a widget bar will pop up at the bottom of the screen.

We like that users who might be buying a new HDTV set anyway can get Connected TV as an add-on, but if you're not already planning to buy, it's an expensive upgrade.

Dell Laptop
It probably shouldn't be too surprising that the most direct way to get the internet on your TV is to connect your PC to your TV. While that may sound like a daunting task, with HDMI connections, a direct route is as simple as a cable connect from one to the other. Without the HDMI connections, it is still possible but more difficult, and will probably require assistance from a tech-savvy friend, or at least a website. It can be expensive, too, if you don't have an HDMI-enabled TV or an extra PC just lying around.

Techies won't agree with this rating, but for the average consumer, the expense -- as well as the perceived difficulty and gadget tinkering required -- makes it a less-popular option.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Hulu issued a cease and desist order when there was no formal legal action, just a request for removal. No legal action has ever been taken against Boxee.

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