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January 8, 2008 2:25 PM

CES: Panasonic writing the set-top box's obituary

Posted by Brier Dudley

LAS VEGAS -- Panasonic's getting attention at CES for its big, thin and wireless TVs. It's showing the world's largest plasma -- a 150-incher -- alongside dazzling, inch-thick by 50-inch diagonal models coming in late 2009. It's also highlighting a wireless system that beams full 1080p content from a Blu-ray player to a high-def screen.

But I think its sleeper announcement here is a line of Viera-brand Internet protocol televisions that it will start selling this spring in 40-, 42-, 50- and 56-inch sizes.

The IPTVs have Ethernet jacks so they can directly connect to the Web and display online video, photos and other content.

By itself, an Ethernet jack on a TV isn't earth-shattering. High-end Pioneer sets have had them for several years, and Sony's introducing its second-generation of modules that add this feature to its Bravia sets.

Hewlett-Packard has long sold sets with built-in wireless connectivity and Microsoft partners are pitching new "extenders" that add Web connections via Windows PCs. There are also a million other gadgets here that connect TVs to PCs, the Internet and home theater setups via different wireless and wired technologies.

Panasonic's IPTV sets look like any other and, yes, they have the obligatory access to YouTube videos.

What's really interesting -- to me, at least -- is how Panasonic is taking the Web connection to the next level. It's treating the TV screen real estate the way the tech industry is treating PC and mobile phone displays.

When you switch the Panasonic to its Internet input, the screen becomes a home page with a collection of widgets that you click to pull up online services. such as photo and video sites. This would be perfect for Hulu's online TV library and Microsoft's streaming NBC video from the Olympics.

I'd think these sets would take the wind out of Comcast's announcement today that it's boosting its "on demand" video library and TiVo's Monday announcement that it's giving subscribers a new way to get user-generated video content from sites such as YouTube on their TVs.

How much longer are people going to buy boxes and pay service fees if they can easily connect their sets directly to free (ad-supported) online high-def video libraries?

A Panasonic spokesman was vague about who will get access to the screen real estate but said the company is talking to a number of companies. He also wouldn't disclose prices.

I hope it keeps the prices close those of standard TVs, opens the screen to developers and gives users a choice of which applications to run. Will it let developers put the same widgets and applications they're developing for social networks, phones and PCs on its mainstream TVs? How about a purely online Xbox?

It's been obvious for some time that televisions would eventually connect directly to the Web without having to go through PCs or another gadget. That will accelerate the shift toward a future where the majority of video content comes over the Internet (assuming there will be decent broadband and the network can handle it ...). I'm taking these sets from Panasonic -- the General Motors of the consumer electronics industry -- as the biggest sign yet that it's really, finally happening.

If you're still not ready for this stuff, you can switch the screen back to plain old television, but hitting the "TV" button on the remote.

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.