Net and Tube: A Cool Couple

Web-linked TVs are closer yet face tech and business hurdles.

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Apple's Steve Jobs makes iTunes a movie rental store.

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The Internet, with its URLs and search engines, demands a keyboard. But nobody wants one on the couch. Hope rests on new approaches, such as the menus and remote control demonstrated by Hillcrest Laboratories, a Maryland start-up. Waving the remote moves a cursor around the screen. There it navigates fast-changing menus that drill into piles of movies, photos, and music. The remote has just two buttons, a radical change from today's clickers. "You just can't add a button for every new feature," says Hillcrest Chairman Daniel Simpkins.

Meanwhile, networking TVs with today's routers, PCs, and software is a crapshoot. So electronics makers are taking baby steps for now. They are assembling their own information and video services that can connect directly to TVs, bypassing some of the networking issues. Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp will sell TVs that can download news stories and maybe some videos.

But it's Hollywood movies and shows that will motivate a mass market for Internet-connected TVs, says Alex Thatcher, a Hewlett-Packard executive. The market will blossom when studios no longer present a bottleneck. "It's just like music," Thatcher says. "It exploded in the ways that people use it when they could get away from shiny disks."

There is something wrong with driving a 4,000-pound car to pick up a half-ounce movie disk. Digital downloads offer an alternative that Hollywood finds appealing. "There is something elegant about the idea," says Danny Kaye, head of technology strategy for Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. "But the elegance isn't there yet."