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In search of latest 'killer app'

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published January 9, 2007


Most experts agree on what the future holds for TV in 2007.

More.

More online streaming. More digital video downloads. More video on cellphones, iPods and digital video recorders such as TiVo. More TV downloaded to home computers.

But even as big names convene this week at consumer electronics conventions in Las Vegas and San Francisco, the question preoccupying everyone is the search for modern TV's "killer app."

Short for killer application, the phrase is geek-speak for a program so popular, it transforms the technology. Think email and the Internet, Web sites and the World Wide Web, iPods and digital audio.

So what's the killer app that will galvanize couch potatoes, most of whom now just want to aim the remote at the biggest set they can afford?

Ty Ahmad-Taylor, an expert on consumer attitudes in cable TV, said it has to help consumers navigate the explosion of program choices and present advertising they are specifically interested in.

"No offense to Ford, but I should never see a Ford F-150 commercial, because I'm never going to buy one," he said. "So you have to have a better sense of what people are watching and consuming and then give it to them."

Which explains why Verizon on Sunday unveiled plans for a new, interactive media guide for its FIOS TV service allowing users to search through their own digital pictures and music, on demand services, currently broadcast programming, and digital video recorder content. Planned for initial rollout in New Jersey and deployment in the Tampa Bay area later this year, the guide also will provide users with recommendations to guide program choices.

It's the kind to product needed to reach a marketplace increasingly divided into two camps: moderately tech-savvy people who are using technology to shift when and where they watch programs, and the vast majority of people who still watch television conventionally.

As digital media proliferates, you can expect to see more content made specifically for different platforms - Lost episodes just for cellphones, for example - as big media companies get a better sense of what works, said Joakim Baage, director of content and business development for the industry Web site Digital Media Wire.

Another product to watch: Apple Corp's buzzed-about iTV, which would allow a viewer to wirelessly display on a TV screen video downloaded to a home computer or streamed over the Internet.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is expected to talk about iTV today during his keynote speech at the Macworld Conference and Expo in San Francisco.

Though devices such as Microsoft's Xbox 360 already allow users to play video from a home computer on television, fans theorize Apple can meld the hip cachet of its massively popular iPod with a user-friendly TV device. With more TV networks putting entire episodes online, iTV could offer instant access to hit shows such as Desperate Housewives and Heroes anytime.

"It completes your media circle," said Nick Starr, an analyst for a Pinellas County commercial bakery who maintains a Web site devoted to media technology. "If I can have my laptop sitting next to me and wirelessly watch a movie on TV while still browsing the Internet ... that would be amazing."

Others say the last thing people want is another box sitting on their TVs.

"People already have a cable TV set-top box, a TiVo, a DVD player - no more boxes," said Steve Safran, managing editor of the Lost Remote industry blog. "Anything that comes out and complicates matters is doomed to failure; anything that simplifies TV is a big hit."

The traditional problem with melding computers and television has been that watching TV is a passive experience while using a computer is more active.

Safran is betting that cable companies - which already offer video-on-demand services and TiVo-style digital video recorders - will offer access to video downloads and online video streams inside one set-top box. He also expects to see TVs with built-in capability to surf the Internet and download programming emerge in 2007. The result: media middlemen - local TV stations broadcasting network programming, for instance - may become increasingly irrelevant.

"The TV industry's reaction to any new technology is to deny it, then sue it, then accept it, implement it and claim they invented it," Safran said, laughing. "TV stations need to adjust their information so it can be micropersonalized."

But what if the killer app uniting TV and the online universe is choice itself?

"Part of this ... is not forcing people to watch TV in ways they don't want to watch it," said Staci D. Kramer, executive editor of the digital media business Web site paidcontent.org. "Perhaps the killer app is ... just allowing you to do anything you want. (Because) for every person who wants to create their own way of doing things ... there are 1,000 people who just want to turn on their TV and they want it to work."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.