Next big tech step: Connect all gizmos

LAS VEGAS -- That big-screen digital television you just bought, or are thinking about buying, may soon get some powerful new connections.

As the annual Consumer Electronics Show gets into full swing here, once again everybody is talking about connectivity. But this time it's not about connecting computers to each other.


Instead, it's about connecting all the other devices you may already have - your computer, your cell phone, your portable music player, your cameras - to your television set, so you can get whatever programming you want, whenever and wherever you want it. "Our ambition is to give you connected experiences 24 hours a day," Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates said in a conference kickoff speech.

Microsoft announced plans here to update its Xbox 360 video game console by the end of the year so it will also work as a set-top box for Web television programming delivered via Internet protocols.


It also is developing software for a new line of home computer servers designed to store and dish up movies, photos, games and other digital content to TV sets, other PCs and portable devices.

Microsoft isn't the only tech company talking about connectivity.

Cisco Systems Inc. Chief Executive Officer John T. Chambers today plans to discuss how his company wants to hook consumers' PCs and TVs together, and to the Internet. The effort would use television set-top boxes made by Cisco's Scientific Atlanta subsidiary and Internet routers made by its Linksys division.

Sony Corp. is showing off devices that plug into its TV sets and connect them, wirelessly or with cables, to home computer networks, allowing users to get video from the Internet.

Sling Media Inc., whose Slingbox device lets users access their home television programming over the Internet using a computer wherever they are, unveiled a new gadget yesterday called SlingCatcher that lets users do the reverse: access Web sites and Internet video with their TV sets.

The most-anticipated TV connectivity breakthrough, though, may be detailed today in San Francisco, not Las Vegas.

At its Apple Computer Inc.'s Macworld conference, CEO Steven P. Jobs is widely expected to give more details on the iTV device designed to connect to the Internet and also work as a bridge between TV sets, computers and Apple's iPod music players. The company also may show off a cell phone that also plays video and music.

Because of Apple's revolutionary successes with the iPod and iTunes music software, anything announced at CES almost by default will have some wind taken out of its sails, because everybody is looking at Macworld too, said Joe Laszlo, an analyst with technology consulting firm Jupiter Research.


The idea of watching Internet video on a TV, or television programming on a PC or cell phone may still be like foreign concept to many consumers today, but that's changing.

According to surveys by Jupiter Research, about 30 percent of consumers have expressed interest in watching TV programming on their PCs. About 12 percent have said they'd like to watch TV on mobile devices such as cell phones.

What's making such connectivity a reality now is the rise of digital content and the explosive growth of devices to put it on.

"The entertainment business is in the midst of a transition," said Dan Scheinman, senior vice president for Cisco's Media Solutions Group. "The problem we're trying to solve now is how do consumers find and connect to all the media they want in a world where there's a lot of media out there."

By some measures, outfits such as Cisco and archrival Motorola may be in a bad position when it comes to the new world of connectivity.

Even though they already have the technology to let television sets, computers and the Internet to talk to each other, they can't roll it out widely until cable companies agree to buy and deploy their set-top boxes, a major cost that many cable operators aren't willing to pay right now.