Facebook and Twitter with your TV viewing experience. In addition, DVRs will soon be able to access internet content from YouTube and several other video-sharing portals. And all of this web content is seamlessly woven within Verizon's on-screen guide alongside traditional programming information.In the U.S., Verizon FiOS customers will soon receive an update to their set-top boxes that will connect their TVs to the web in an entirely new way. The company is preparing a major upgrade to their TV widgets platform which currently serves basic info like weather and traffic. The upgrade will open that platform up to third-party developers. To demonstrate the capabilities of the upcoming SDK, the company built widgets that integrate both
Is that Twitter on My TV?
Any serious Twitter user will tell you that half the fun of watching a major television event or popular show is tuning into the backchannel provided by those twittering their thoughts and reactions to what's being broadcast. An excellent example of this type of live backchannel was seen during President Obama's recent public address - a hotly tracked item on Twitter where the hashtag to follow was #NSOTU (aka "Not State of the Union.") Even lawmakers were getting in on the action by twittering from the House floor while listening to Obama speak.
This real-time view into the reactions of the crowd has been at times insightful, at other times humorous, but is always an interesting and interactive way to participate in any event, including something shown on TV. Yet when it comes to Twitter and the television, it's often a two-screen experience involving a web-connected laptop or phone and the TV itself.
But with Verizon's new widget platform, developers will be able to build widgets like this one which displays Twitter updates on your TV. But unlike Twitter's own search tool that only lists the trending topics, Verizon's widget demonstrates how Twitter could enhance your TV-viewing experience in a whole new way. When launching this widget, for example, one of the options is "current channel." Select that and all of a sudden you're seeing the tweets related specifically to the program or movie that you're currently viewing.
Another widget, this one for Facebook users, lets you update your status with a message about what you're watching. It also provides access to your friends and your photo albums.
These two widgets were built in-house by Verizon engineers and won't necessarily ship with the upcoming update to the DVR... but they could. In a recent demonstration of the software's capabilities, Joseph Ambeault, Director of Consumer Product Development Video, hinted that the company had talked to various internet companies about their providing widgets for the new platform. However, he would not confirm any specifics. (There were some very cagey head rolls - half nods, half shakes - when providing the non-answers, though!). We specifically asked about Twitter, but the Verizon representative said he could not comment. We're taking the decided ambiguity to mean talks began but nothing is official.
In fact, seeing the widget in action makes us wonder - is this a part of Twitter's mysterious business model? It very well could be. Verizon's widgets, which could potentially reach several million customers here in the United States, will be monetized through on-screen advertisements like banner ads. These ads, similar in look and feel to those seen on the web, will launch a quick TV commercial when selected with the remote control.
The Widget Ecosystem
At present, Verizon has widgets for weather, traffic, headlines, horoscopes, and community information. There's also an ESPN Fantasy Football widget which provides stats on your players and scores. But when the widget platform goes live, the potential for an entire ecosystem of widgets will explode. However, the questions as to how this ecosystem will look and behave are things Verizon is still figuring out as, up until now, they've solely focused on the technical aspects of the solution.
What they can say now is that widgets will be programmed using LUA, a standard technology which many game developers will be familiar with already. The process for signing up to create a widget won't involve any laborious steps, either. Instead, there will be a quick web form to fill out and then developers can gain access to the company's SDK (software development kit). According to Verizon, they're not interested in tightly controlling which widgets become available to their FiOS customers - they just want to provide tools for widget creation and sharing. As Ambeault describes it, the ecosystem's level of openness will be "somewhere in between Apple and Google" - a reference to the variation between the App Store approval process for the locked-down iPhones versus the wide-open Google Android platform.
Also of note, Verizon seems less interested in competing with the other newly launched widget platforms, like the Yahoo/Intel TV widgets that are being integrated into new televisions themselves, and are more interested in working to port those widgets to their platform. But when asked if they were working with Yahoo, the only answer was yet another cryptic head roll.
Internet Video with No Extra Box (Just a Computer)
Another aspect to the upgraded Verizon Web + TV experience is the introduction of internet content, searchable through their "Interactive Media Guide." When the new software launches, Verizon FiOS DVRs will stream software from YouTube, DailyMotion, Break.com, Blip.tv, and Veoh. The format conversion that makes this possible actually takes place on a computer connected on the home network running Verizon Media Manager software, not on the DVR itself. Verizon says they configure this software for consumers at the time of installation.
This Media Manager software also allows customers to stream videos and photos from their PC to TV.
Beyond the Net
Multiple upgrades to the DVR software will take place over the course of the coming year. The first upgrade, due out this summer, will deliver new features like the updated program guide with its richer contextual menus. Here, for example, customers will find things like colorful thumbnails of movies when searching through on-demand titles - an experience somewhat reminiscent of Netflix. Also included will be the ability to preview programs from channels you don't currently subscribe to and the option to then order the channel using your remote. Most notably, though, the summer upgrade (from version 1.6 to 1.7 of Verizon's 2nd-generation software) will introduce the internet video content. Later this fall, the widget SDK will launch.
Given Verizon's position as a TV company, phone company, ISP, and wireless provider, they plan to maximize their new software across all various platforms. Already Verizon mobile phones can access TV through V-Cast, but in the future they may be able to use the widgets too. Mobile phone users can also program their DVRs remotely.
Of course, this news is only of interest to Verizon FiOS customers - still a relatively small market here in the U.S. when compared to cable but one that's growing in key markets. However, Verizon's move is raising the bar as to what consumers will come to expect from their web-connected TVs in the future, whether the web content comes from Verizon, is built into the TV itself, or arrives as part of whatever comes next.