Intel/Yahoo Joint Venture: Widgets and Idjits

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 |  Includes: INTC, YHOO
by: Scott Berry

Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) recently announced a venture to develop a platform–dubbed “The Widget Channel”–that in effect turns your TV into an Internet thin client. Seth Gilbert over at Metue.com has a great summary.

Developers can write software widgets that can be uploaded to your TV and run in the background. You could check email, share photos with friends, bid on eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) - anything a widget on your Mac or PC can do. All while watching your favorite TV show or sports event.

Of course, you’ll also have to buy a new TV or Set-Top Box [STB] that is equipped with Intel’s CE3100 Media Processor. Good luck with that.

[I wonder sometimes whether anyone ever sees the obvious disconnect between relatively fast new media business development cycles--i.e. "Internet time"--and the much slower frequency with which people upgrade expensive items like TV sets. Many, many firms are vying to deliver a "convergence" solution. Which, if any, will be sufficiently compelling and have enough staying power to become embedded within a sizable share of TVs or STBs?]

Overall, I’m a bit skeptical of this and other similar initiatives.

What I do like is that it’s expected to be a relatively open standard (from the software point of view, at least–you still need Intel processors). Tapping the creativity of the wider software development community is a proven method for both good product and built-in viral marketing. iPhone (NASDAQ:AAPL) apps, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Maps mashups, and Firefox extensions are just a few examples. However, this alone won’t guarantee consumer adoption of the platform, just ensure functionality is available.

At the end of the day, do consumers even want this? Here’s what I think is true:

  1. People like to use the Internet for a growing variety of things, including watching video.
  2. People enjoy watching TV, preferably on a TV set. (I’d hazard a guess that most people watch TV with someone else in the room, but typically watch video on the PC alone.)
  3. Many do some form of Internet activity (surf, email, etc.) while they watch TV.
  4. Past attempts at interactive TV–at 15 years and counting–have been underwhelming, and that’s being charitable.

What isn’t at all clear, is whether those surfing are paying any attention to the program while doing so. What also isn’t clear is what the other people in the room are doing. Most likely, they’re actually watching the program.

So what happens when the surfer starts fiddling around with widgets, essentially “doing Internet stuff” while others are watching the show on the same screen. Even if the video portion of the screen is undisturbed, wouldn’t that be a bit distracting? Why does everyone seem to assume the surfer wants or needs to use the TV screen anyway? Aren’t they using a computer already?

Sometimes it seems like much of the Internet/TV/PC convergence is a supplier-driven attempt to create a market where there isn’t one. Perhaps it’s simply another self-reinforcing delusion, where media and equipment companies living in an echo chamber of trade shows, developer conferences, and press events convince themselves a market exists where it doesn’t. The 21st century’s equivalent of the videophone–a technology so compelling that consumers must want it. Except they didn’t.

I’ve seen this kind of thing countless times, especially in large, bureaucratic companies like Intel.

Someone somewhere (fairly high up in the management ranks, to be sure) has a brainchild for a new, compelling offering. A sure-fire way to help the company grow and break into new markets. So it’s funded, momentum builds, staff are assigned, and hilarity ensues.

Soon, lower level employees–who actually do the market research and understand what’s going on–figure out the idea is D.O.A. But nobody wants to tell the top brass they’re wrong, or especially that they’re “idjits” (idiots), in a shoot-the-messenger world. Particularly when their whole department was formed around the initiative. Job security will out, you know.

As the old joke goes, as you go up the management chain, crap becomes manure, then turns into fertilizer, which is recast as a way to grow the company. That’s when the flowery press releases begin. Companies rarely issue a release about how the initiative is abandoned some months later when the market fails to materialize.

Is The Widget Channel crap, or dynamic growth? It’s probably too early to tell. I suspect it’s got a decent chance to beat the competition, whatever that means. However, what’s more important is whether there is even a market to win.

Disclosure: I hold no position in any of the stocks mentioned here.