Vista, iTV to lift stakes in fight for TV numbers





Boxes containing Microsoft Corp.’s XBox 360 gaming system are shown at a CompUSA store in Tukwila, Wash.


LOOKING AHEAD: The next year is supposed to be a pivotal one for TV, if you believe what you’ve read in the waning weeks of 2006. During the holiday week, the Financial Post ran a series of features on the tube we can expect to see in the coming months, just as everyone (well, everyone male, in all likelihood) was out trading in their old picture tubes for nice big new LCD and plasma TVs to usher in the New Year.

One piece had a sub-headline that informed us that "The traditional TV audience is fading" — hardly news for anyone who’s been reading this column for the last three years. Fifty years ago, we’re told, North America’s 70 million TV viewers had to be in front of their sets if they wanted to catch the most-watched TV episode ever, at that point — the I Love Lucy show where Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky. Today, of course, you could TiVo the show, watch it online — legally on an official network site or bootlegged on YouTube — or download it (legally) from iTunes or (illegally) through BitTorrent or some other file-sharing service.

You don’t even need a TV set anymore; Kaan Yigit, a communications consultant around which the article is written, says that his great epiphany came at a conference in Atlanta last year, where he met a young man who didn’t own a TV, but watched everything he wanted to on his laptop. This revelation was a setup for another feature that ran in the Post the next day, about the "new Internet battlefield" — the living room, where Apple and Microsoft are preparing to go head to head to win the convergence war.

The Xbox, with its Xbox live subscription service, is supposed to be Microsoft’s Trojan Horse on the shelf next to the tube, a gaming platform that just happens to also connect owners to online services and media streaming. As everyone is about to find out with the release of Vista, Microsoft’s new Windows operating system, content and digital rights management is what the software giant is all about these days, anticipating a day in the near future when Windows software will manage the majority of media streaming into most homes the way they dominate desktops and office software.

The wild card, as usual, is Apple, which will be launching its iTV unit this year, a trademark little white box that is supposed to be the bridge between the living room TV and the office computer. It’s supposed to work through Apple’s iTunes software and service, and experts are — with ill-disguised glee, and no shortage of malice toward Microsoft — imagining it as a potential tsunami of technological ubiquity on the order of the iPod.

This is the struggle that’s supposed to convulse its way across your carpet, through the dining room and down the hall this year. Whether it actually happens — or whether some other radical change is brewing, unseen — it’s more than likely that, this time next year, Three And A Half Men will still be one of the top-rated shows, forcing us to imagine ourselves, in spite of whatever technological marvels we have at our disposal, as apes in space suits.