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Wednesday, January 10, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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TV? PC? Soon it may not matter

Seattle Times business reporter

LAS VEGAS — It's getting harder to tell the difference between a television and a computer.

You might have read something like that in the mid-1990s, but never before have both platforms shared so many capabilities. You can see the result all over the technology industry's giant International Consumer Electronics Show.

"Ten years ago, when we first thought about convergence, we debated whether it would be the TV or the PC that would dominate," said Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association, the trade group that produces the show. "Today, that battle is totally over."

As video downloading takes off with services from the likes of Apple, Wal-Mart, major broadcast networks and more, people are looking for the best way to get that content from the relatively small screens of the computer or digital players like the iPod to their big, expensive televisions.

At the same time, televisions are getting Internet access, USB ports and a host of other computerlike capabilities. Some of these are built into the big screens directly, but more commonly they come via digital set-top boxes.

CES, a crowded stage for the industry, has seen countless companies announce devices and services this week that continue to push televisions and PCs closer together.

And on Tuesday, at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, Apple detailed its product in this hot category.

Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs, who skips the CES mayhem for Macworld, described Apple TV, a set-top box that transmits content including music, photos and video from a Mac or a PC to a television for playback. It costs about $300 and is to begin shipping next month.

It's entering a crowded marketplace. Many vendors sell boxes of various descriptions that essentially turn the television into a large, high-quality monitor for playing digital files stored on a computer.

Netgear on Monday announced the Digital Entertainer HD, which it said will find content on a home network and organize it in a library that can be browsed with a TV remote. It works with systems including Media Center Edition of Microsoft Windows.

Microsoft refers to this category of devices as Media Center Extenders. Its own Xbox 360 does dual duty as a game console and an extender, among other things.

SanDisk is cutting another path from the PC to the TV. The company Tuesday announced a flash memory player and cradle to plug into existing TV audio-visual ports to make it easier for consumers to move media from their PCs to their big screens.

The company is also urging manufacturers to put USB ports — long a standard feature of PCs — into new televisions.

The maker of the SlingBox, which allows a TV feed to be viewed on a PC linked to the Internet and on some mobile devices, announced its own technology to get that content onto televisions. Sling Media on Monday rolled out SlingCatcher, which transmits anything on a computer, including full Web sites, to the TV.

Motorola, which has sold 50 million digital set-top boxes since it introduced the product 10 years ago, described a feature of its latest version that it calls "Follow Me TV."

The technology allows viewers to move to other TVs in their home without missing a moment of the program they were watching. It also works with photo collections, matching a capability of networked home PCs.

Motorola also plans to roll out live TV on mobile devices.

An emerging way to deliver television over the Internet could make the big screen even more like the networked computer.

Microsoft is making software to enable Internet Protocol TV (IPTV), which promises more opportunities for viewers to interact with programs — and advertisements. Microsoft on Sunday said the Xbox 360 will function as a set-top box for IPTV.

For most of its history, the television has been "an island of technology in the home," said Ed Graczyk, director of marketing for Microsoft TV. "... You've got that ability to enable new kinds of features and experiences, because it's now a connected device."

These new features, enabled to varying degrees by the other PC-to-TV technologies, include control over when you watch programs of your choice and the ability to access TV content from places other than your couch, Graczyk said.

Using an Xbox 360 as a set-top box and features of the Xbox Live online gaming service, viewers could chat with friends through the network while they're watching programming, Graczyk said.

A few years down the road, IPTV providers could allow users to customize their channel selection. Some providers are even experimenting with allowing users to create their own channels to share videos and photos with friends and family who also subscribe.

A Microsoft IPTV partner in Belgium is running a trial of this kind of service, Graczyk said.

It's another way the TV could accomplish a task many people now do on PCs: sharing photos and videos online.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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