Intel is gearing up to reinvent home TV and add yet another delivery channel for marketers to try and master.
The chip company plans to start shipping a settop box this year that will deliver a broad menu of mainstream television and on-demand content to living rooms via any broadband Internet connection. Companies such as Apple, Roku, Netflix, and Hulu already do that to one degree or another, but Intel says it can succeed on the basis of some new approaches to pricing, a revamped user interface, and fine-grained personalization of content suggestions and advertising.
Marketers will likely be most interested in the personalization feature. Intel has described that technology only vaguely so far, but the outlines look like this: A camera incorporated into the settop box will watch the watchers to learn, over time, who's who in any particular household. Image recognition technology will determine exactly who is sitting in front of the TV at any given moment. This would do away with the need for people to log in to help Intel's servers in the cloud come up with suggestions for additional programs. Instead of recommendations based on an aggregate of family members' viewing history (as, say, Netflix offers), this service would be able to offer suggestions tailored to specific individuals.
Obviously, advertisers would welcome such high-resolution targeting. In theory, anyway, Intel's setup would bring television advertising one step closer to what's done on the web, where ads are chosen in real-time for individual site visitors based on they've looked at and searched for there and on other sites.
Intel says its box will present a much-improved user interface, most likely taking full advantage of the big HD screens installed in most upscale homes. That means potentially richer pages of text and graphics, content pulled from the web as needed, and even the ability to run certain interactive applications. The broader the range of information a system can offer viewers, the more accurate the profile that system should be able to develop over time. It's as simple as that.
Privacy issues? You bet, but for now, Intel officials say there will be a shutter in front of the camera's lens, so that its gaze can be turned off at any time. Officials also say the advantages of personalization will be compelling enough that the camera will be kept on more than it's turned off. There's speculation here and there that the camera could be used to enable video calling, much as Sony's PS3 does with its add-on camera.
Intel isn't saying much about its pricing plans, but company officials say that many TV viewers are fed up with how cable operators (through bundling) force them to pay for loads of channels in which they have no interest. Intel plans to offer its own bundles, but it says they will reflect an effort at "curating" content.
One feature the chip company is touting is the ability to deliver TV programs not only at their regularly scheduled time -- 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, for instance -- but also at any moment over, say, the following week. In many cases, this would obviate the need for subscribers to record favorite shows.
Why might Intel, known best as a leading supplier to the personal computer and enterprise server markets, want to get into home TV? Because it's so big in PCs and servers. Somehow, it has missed some important turns in the microprocessor business. Its chips are not seeing much use in the smartphones and tablets that are fast replacing the PC. In servers, where demand is shifting to low-power chips, ARM looks poised to give Intel a serious run for its money.
TV settop boxes look like like the kind of high-volume market in which Intel thrives. And, like other hardware makers such as Apple, Intel undoubtedly sees profits in selling advanced, information-rich services. And let's not forget that TV viewing is hardly confined to the living room these days. Intel is no doubt trying to figure out how to be a major player in the nascent mobile TV market.