Since they made their debut at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this year, everyone seems to be talking about Yahoo’s Widgets, the on screen indicators that can add information about news, business sport and the weather.
To a European audience this sounds pretty much like what teletext has been doing for the past 30 years, and remember that the concept never really made it in the US, or the promise of MHP even though proprietary middlewares were already doing the same thing.
Widgets, however, offer personalisation and a willing developer community that has already shown its commitment to the Apple Application Store. Like teletext, they are available directly through the television itself, rather than relying on an additional set-top box, but this time the initiative is coming from the receiver manufacturers and their partnership with the search giant and not the broadcasters.
Patrick Berry, VP, Connected TV, Yahoo! says that initial approaches were made to the broadcasters before pick-up was received from manufacturers that include Sony, LG and Samsung. A partnership with Toshiba will add some non-TV devices.
“We started with the operators and said ‘who represents television in the home?’ and we went to the operators, Sky, BT and in the US Comcast and AT&T,” according to Berry. “It occurred to us that the conditions weren’t right for doing what we wanted to do, but as we went through that process we also talked to consumer electronic manufacturers and there we found the right willingness and alignment, and a global opportunity.”
Yahoo widgets are currently available in ten European territories, each with local language support, and it is clear a global footprint waits. The widgets associate themselves with the native UI functions of the TV, adopting the language selected at installation.
Berry admits that the Yahoo Widgets are far from the first platform capable of delivering the weather forecast, but says what they provide is the scale, which the internet can offer developers for the first time. “We have an open platform that runs globally on very many different devices, so we don’t have the little silo or closed market problem.
“In small markets like Denmark, Yahoo is not going to have the native services and we couldn’t build them if we wanted to. But there is somebody in Denmark who has a great content service that is really relevant and what we are doing is creating the tools necessary to help those companies seek out their audiences locally.”
It is no surprise that Apple application developers are among the first to become interested in developing widgets. Berry predicts that the Dutch teletext application on your writer’s iPhone might soon find its way into US homes via the widget platform.
The Yahoo widget engine is based on the Konflabulator, the desktop technology acquired by Yahoo in 2005, though the emphasis now is firmly on the TV market.
With a principal of always having the internet one click away, the widget interface can either superimpose itself onto an existing image that would include pay-TV content from a third party operator, or place the widgets around the sides of a reduced TV window. Public broadcasters take note.
Berry says the BBC has been “great to talk to” and it may be that public broadcasters become a source of widget development, given the resources already put into their websites.
Already, YouTube can be viewed through the connected TVs, as is the case with Apple TV, and almost every similar application seen on the tradeshow floor. The next stage is premium video that Berry says will be offered through Samsung TVs in the early autumn, presenting a discernable threat to pay-TV operators, particularly those who like BT Vision supposedly market themselves towards light TV viewers.
All providers of content need do is create their own application, be they Amazon or the ‘Acme Movie Co’, no agreement need be sought with Yahoo other than the approval of the application through the developer program. “Monetarily we really want them to pursue their business model, because that helps rise the tide, because as a commercial internet activity we’ll get a share of that. We’re not trying to get a share of every little dollar.”
Berry says that the US cable platform Tru2Way is not attractive because of the narrow specifications that have been set. “If you look at it from the development standpoint you just don’t want to be associated with it. People want to develop iPhone aps because they are really cool. It performs beautifully and your brand is well presented in that environment.”
He admits that there is no possibility of a single Yahoo device coming in and achieving the same scale as the iPhone. However, by working across multiple devices it is possible to encourage developers and through it users. Potential developers can sign up to Yahoo’s developer program, online at http://connectedtv.yahoo.com/, where they can also receive help from their peers. The first stage is to develop and test the widget on a desktop emulator, which can take the developer 90% towards the completion of their widget. The application is then uploaded to a special developer area so it can be tested on a compatible television.
Yahoo will act to make sure that any offensive, or potentially television-crashing applications, are removed from the system. Berry emphasises that to date this hasn’t been necessary.
“The model right now is for us to make the strategic investments necessary so that we can position ourselves for the long term and enable us to pursue the business models we’re comfortable. Today those are advertising and to a lesser extent premium services and we expect both of those to be available to us on TV. We hope to bring internet science to an industry that has been characterised not by science, but brute force.”