TV on the 'Net: Ready for prime time?

Every once in a while, a technological development switches into fast-forward mode without warning. If you downloaded a TV show across the Internet on October 11 of last year, chances are you were cheerfully trampling on some media giant's copyright. One day later Apple introduced a video-capable iPod and US$1.99 downloads of a few programs, such as Desperate Housewives and Lost. All of a sudden, the phrase "legal TV downloads" was no longer an oxymoron.

Just a few months later, they're not only a reality--they're a booming trend. Apple now offers more than 40 TV series, and it has acquired an archrival in Google (who else!), which is now hawking a hodgepodge of everything from current hit shows to random smatterings of TV Land--like reruns. CBS is selling downloads directly, as well as through Google; NBC, meanwhile, has begun gratis streams of the nightly news.

Love movies? Vongo, a new service from the Starz cable-TV people, delivers unlimited flicks for a monthly fee. And more services are in the works, such as AOL's In2TV, a free service that promises DVD-quality, ad-supported streams of thousands of episodes of countless old shows (welcome back, Kotter).

In short, TV companies that once ignored or feared the Internet are beginning to embrace it. That's a necessity if the Net is going to do to video what it's already doing to music: radically affect how we buy it and what we can do with it.

But if a revolution is upon us, it's just dawning. And it won't be complete until TV download and streaming services...

...talk to the TV. Most of us still do most of our TV watching on, well, a TV. These new services focus on PCs and handheld devices, and few folks have easy means to get video off the Internet and onto a standard television. That'll change, especially as wireless networking gets quicker and more bulletproof. Even then, though, newfangled, Net-based services will compete with video-on-demand offerings from living-room veterans like Comcast.

...bulk way, way up. Someday, Net-based video may put every episode of virtually all the shows that anybody remembers at our fingertips. Despite their recent growth spurt, current services still offer only enough stuff to whet your appetite. As with music, assembling sizable digital libraries will take time. (And even now, music services' catalogs have gaping holes--bought a Beatles download lately?)

...get watchable. The picture quality of shows I've downloaded from the iTunes Music Store is a bit better than I'd have guessed it would be on the video iPod's 2.5-inch screen--and much worse than I'd like on my 27-inch standard-def TV. Once video downloads are no longer a novelty, we'll want them to look decent on a wide range of devices; once HDTV is completely mainstream, we'll expect them to look spectacular.

...get easy. Historically, TV has been the least demanding of media--hey, there's a reason why its addicts are called "couch potatoes." But puzzling out the current world of video downloading is, unquestionably, work.

For one thing, no two services are the same when it comes to which devices they work with. Shows from Apple play on Windows computers and Macs, but not on any portable player that isn't a video iPod. The Windows-only Vongo service touts its ability to copy movies to handhelds that run Microsoft's Portable Media Center version 2 (total count of such products at press time: zero). Google's Video Store is downright enigmatic: It couldn't decide whether a show I bought worked only with Windows or could also run on a Mac, an iPod, or a PSP--and its advice for copying to an iPod left out a crucial step.

Am I beginning to sound like a Net-TV naysayer? Nah--in the long term, I'm a believer. Someday, most of the video we watch will be delivered over the Internet...and while I'm not ready to predict just how soon that'll be, I know that PC World is going to have a blast covering the services, software, and devices that make it all possible. Stay tuned.

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Harry McCracken

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