Companies have taken all sorts of shots at such a convergence box for the past 20 years, leaving a path strewn with breathless press releases and failed systems. More recently, the industry has churned out an expanding array of set-top boxes most of which take users to a narrow set of video and music services.
But now the pieces are coming together to turn today's appealing flat-panel screens into full Internet clients. When consumer companies start delivering real Internet TVs in volume, they will inspire a new wave of Web services beyond today's Fancast, Hulu, iTunes and YouTube.
Internet TV "is a superb idea and it's going to be the future of television," said Steve Perlman, founder of WebTV Networks, one of the field's pioneers, who now runs Rearden LLC (San Francisco), which incubates consumer startups. "It's just a question of when and how it's implemented."
First, the industry must define iTV. Look up WebTV on Wikipedia and you land, ironically, at a so-called disambiguation page that points both to a history of Perlman's earlier effort and a description of streaming media.
Clearly, we don't really know what iTV is or should be. Blame today's pile of set-tops, each with its own handful of Internet-hosted services.
"It's being rolled out in an ignorant and fractured way," said Richard Doherty, principal of consulting firm Envisioneering (Seaford, N.Y.). "There's no consistent description of what an Internet TV is. If you go to 10 retailers you would get 10 answers," he said.
Audio: Steve Perlman, founder of WebTV Networks, one of the early startups pioneering Internet-connected TVs, shares his views about the state of today's products and the outlook for their future.