Ahead of the Curve: 'Net TV may create gated Web

Within the next two weeks, I'll be getting in deep with the Mac and PC technology that will take us into the next decade of Internet with every TV. This time, I'm certain it'll catch. Intel's Viiv Internet media hub initiative isn't just a brand, but an orgy of partnerships among system component makers, broadband providers, content owners and electronics giants. Apple, as is its tradition, is partnering with itself, making access to iTunes Music Store and .Mac an infrared-remote click away through Mac systems and its ingenious Front Row iPod-like GUI.

Having computers sink roots in stores' consumer electronics departments is not only a turning point for technology, but a turning point in the perceived structure of the Web, as well. These little boxes won't change the Web per se, but they will change the way the gross majority of Americans navigate the Web and choose the content they consume. Without being an alarmist about it, I consider it entirely likely that Internet via remote control will give us what we desperately need: zero-effort, zero-thought access to the Internet's massive content grid -- at the risk of what some desperately fear: Corporate gatekeepers will decide where most Americans enter the grid and the paths they'll take to trip about inside it.

I have good reasons for not freaking out about this. First, Internet at every TV means that millions of businesspeople who now wake to Headline News, Bloomberg, or the Wall Street Journal will now be peering over their morning coffee at channels they created. They're more likely to carry information about the business you're in.

The other reason I'm not ringing alarm bells is that a gated Web will be, whether vendors intend it or not, eminently hackable. People who generate non-commercial content but can't get it seen will get together to hot-wire into vendors' gloriously easy remote-control interfaces to add channels of their own. Genuinely independent music and visual content will pop up as thumbnails alongside commercial offerings. Non-commercial podcasts, photocasts, and all kinds of casts will get grafted into appliances' menu hierarchies and be heard and seen by millions who never knew that awesome content was there.

If they're smart, vendors will make this easy. I feel confident that Apple will maintain OS X as an accessible underlayer on its home-theater appliances; they'll always be Macs, therefore they'll always be able jump the iTunes Music Store and .Mac tracks to deliver rich content and applications created by the imaginative people who make up the fast-growing Mac community. Likewise, I'm hopeful that most Viiv-based appliances will open themselves to custom applications, although my expectations for customization of embedded Viiv hardware inside cable boxes and TVs are understandably low.

Making access to the Web's massive content grid as simple as running a DVD player or iPod is a welcome mat for people who don't have the time or interest to scour the Web and pluck out the good stuff that's already there. Like it or not, that describes most people. Concerns about gatekeepers' limits on what can be seen and heard, and the paths that users can take, are reasonable but addressable. Vendors must make concern about lock-in a non-issue by keeping their platforms open. If they don't, consumers can just wait awhile. The locks will be picked for them.

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Tom Yager

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