Katherine Boehret

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

Yahoo Widgets Lend Brains to Boob Tube

Your television set may be the most expensive, eye-catching piece of electronic equipment in your home, but compared to a computer with Internet access, it’s just a dumb box. With their low-tech IQs, TVs encourage a lot of family-room multitasking: While watching the big screen TV, lots of people are looking away to surf the Web with the computer on their lap or the mobile device in their hand.

But television manufacturers are sick and tired of sharing your attention with another device. So this week, Samsung Electronics introduced a television with truly integrated Internet smarts: the $3,000 Samsung LED TV 7000 with the Yahoo Widget Engine. It lets people watch TV and access the Web on the same big screen at the same time, with special on-screen applications that appear on a strip at the bottom of the screen and fetch online content. By this summer, Sony (SNE) and LG Electronics also will offer TVs with the Yahoo Widget Engine, and Vizio will offer models soon thereafter.

I’ve been testing the Yahoo Widget Engine on a 46-inch Samsung TV, and I found it to be a lot of fun to use. It’s easy to navigate, thanks to special color-coded shortcuts on the TV’s remote control, and I didn’t have to abandon the show I was watching to look up a few things online. Widgets, which are small, easily downloadable computer applications, typically expand to a semitranslucent, overlaying panel on the left, or your program can be resized so you don’t lose any of the picture. The one major downside was that it uses a virtual keyboard rather than a physical keyboard for text entry. (You use the remote control to select text from an on-screen keyboard.) A good keyboard is essential for social networking widgets like Twitter, allowing quickly typed reactions to shows as you’re watching them. Samsung is planning to introduce a remote-control-based input method for next-generation TVs.

Samsung's LED TV 7000 uses the Yahoo Widget Engine to access Web content, like Flickr.
Samsung’s LED TV 7000 uses the Yahoo Widget Engine to access Web content, like Flickr.

If you’re reading this and thinking that Internet on the TV has been tried before with limited success, you’re right. For years, companies have designed external boxes that bring some form of the Web to your TV. These include Microsoft Corp.’s (MSFT) Xbox, Apple Inc.’s (AAPL) Apple TV and some features of TiVo (TIVO). But the Yahoo Widget Engine differs from these boxes in two ways. First, Yahoo’s widget system works simultaneously with your TV programming, so you don’t have to turn off the college basketball game to pull up a news story about a star player. Second, it will include widgets with video content that directly competes with live programming.

This second point is noteworthy because television manufacturers in the past have quashed applications with Web video content for fear of these programs competing with live shows. Yahoo (YHOO) says it won’t block widgets from its Widget Engine, so you could, say, run a Showtime widget that plays an episode of “The Tudors” instead of watching a live show.

The Yahoo Widget Engine comes preloaded on TVs with four basic widgets to start: Flickr (Yahoo’s photo service), Yahoo News, Weather and Finance. When prompted, these widgets appear in a horizontal dock along the bottom edge of the TV screen, along with Widget Gallery and Profile. (If you just want to watch TV, you can hide the widget dock easily.) Yahoo expects to offer 20 to 30 widgets within two months, and estimates that it will offer around 100 by the end of the year.

Samsung lent me an LED TV 7000 loaded with the four basic widgets and some extras that will be available in the Widget Gallery by early April: Twitter, Yahoo Video, USA Today Sports and three games (Sudoku, Texas Hold’em and QuizzMaster).

The Yahoo Widget Engine follows a model that encourages developers — even Yahoo’s competitors — to make widgets for its store-like Widget Gallery, where they will be available to download free directly on the TV. The system is similar to Apple’s highly successful App Store for the iPhone, and, like iPhone apps, these widgets will take seconds to download and are fun to try. The Yahoo widgets will work across all enabled televisions, regardless of manufacturer.

TV Internet
Yahoo Widget Engine displays tidbits of information on a TV, like news and weather, without interrupting programming.

Samsung and Yahoo each have their own sub-stores of widgets within Widget Gallery. But users most likely won’t know or care which widgets are coming from what source because they’re all grouped into categories like Latest Widgets, Community and Messaging. Other TV manufacturers will be able to follow this model with their own stores, as well.

The Samsung LED TV 7000 connects to the Web via a wired connection or by using a wireless USB device, which Samsung sells for $80. Currently, Samsung offers four models with built-in Web access, which it calls Internet@TV. By June, the company plans to offer a total of 17 models with Internet@TV. All TVs with the Widget Engine will have remote-control shortcut buttons to pull up widgets.

With a local news station on in the background, I used the Yahoo Widget Engine to pull up Flickr in a left-side panel. After using the painfully slow virtual keyboard to sign into my Flickr account, I quickly skimmed through categories like Your Photos, Your Groups and Explore. I browsed photos from one of my Flickr groups, both in the side panel only and in full-screen slideshow mode, and tagging favorites with a yellow button on my remote control.

With a few steps, snippets of information, or shortcuts, can be created for certain widgets, like Yahoo Weather and Finance, to save you from opening the widget to see more details in a left-side panel. I created a Yahoo Finance snippet for McDonald’s (MCD) stock so I could see this stock’s status at the bottom of my screen without opening the Finance widget. People who have Yahoo accounts can synchronize their account settings with the TV, such as stocks saved in Yahoo Finance.

The Twitter widget automatically refreshes its content roughly once a minute, so you can see new tweets (updates) from the people you follow right in the horizontal dock. You also can see a list of the most popular phrases on Twitter, search Twitter and save searches.

Individual Widget Engine profiles can be created for up to eight people so that a 16-year-old doesn’t have to see his dad’s stock-market news in his profile. Widgets can be moved around in the horizontal dock so you can line them up according to your personal preferences.

The Yahoo Widget Engine is still in its early stages, and there are plenty of changes and widgets to come, not to mention televisions from manufacturers other than Samsung. But it’s easy to navigate and its remote-controls buttons — especially those with color coding — bring the Internet to your TV screen with just one click. If you want a smarter TV, the Yahoo Widget Engine will do the trick.

Edited By Walter S. Mossberg

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