Week in review: TV's fuzzy future

The future of television is coming to a screen near you, and you may not like what you see.

The future of television is coming to a screen near you, and you may not like what you see.

With Tuesday's launch of two HD DVD players from Toshiba, the public got its chance to decide whether that format or its rival, Blu-ray, is the rightful heir to the DVD. In the public-relations battle between the warring technologies, HD DVD scored a victory by getting to market first. Toshiba's HD-A1 ($500) and higher-end HD-XA1 ($800) players hit store shelves this week, two months before the first Blu-ray player is scheduled to go on sale.

This is a high-stakes game, and not just for the movie studios, electronics manufacturers or software companies with a piece of the $24 billion home video market. Consumers could lose big by betting on the wrong technology.

Neither HD DVD nor Blu-ray can offer movie titles from all seven of the top movie studios. That means buyers of one disc player may be prevented from watching a movie from a studio that doesn't support the format.

For TV aficionados who like owning the top tube on the block, there are a few things to consider before buying. (Click here for CNET.com's comments on HD players and read a CNET.com review of the Toshiba machine.)

At least one TV technology is getting a quick dismissal from some consumers, who weren't very happy with an invention from Royal Philips Electronics that prevents TV viewers from switching the channel during commercials or fast-forwarding past commercials when watching DVR content.

Viewers would be released from the freeze only after paying a fee to the broadcaster. The freeze would be implemented on a program-by-program basis, giving viewers a choice at the start of each one.

According to Philips' recently published patent, the apparatus could work inside a set-top box. It would use the standard Multimedia Home Platform to receive a first control signal and then respond by taking control of the TV. The MHP would also be capable of sending the payment information that would lift the freeze, as it does when authorizing pay-per-view content.

Reaction to the invention was decidedly negative, with some CNET News.com readers calling for a boycott of Philips.

"What kind of sadistic person would ever think of such a horrible device?" . "That just hurts the viewer, and for me, puts any company using that off of my buy list."

Other TV news this week likely gave wallet-conscious consumers some hope. Competition in the cable TV market from phone companies could save consumers big bucks, according to a new study by an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. Professor Yale Braunstein analyzed data from the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the Federal Communications Commission, calculating that cable television subscription prices would drop 15 percent to 22 percent in California if cable companies competed directly with another wireline paid-TV provider, such as a telephone company.

Braunstein's report, which was commissioned and paid for by AT&T, is one of the first studies to quantify how much consumers could save if phone companies competed directly against cable operators in the video market. AT&T and Verizon Communications have already begun offering TV service in certain parts of the country.

Vista views, looking at Linux
As spring finally makes an appearance in Silicon Valley, we also get a few hints at what we can expect at tech harvest time.

Microsoft plans to jazz up its music player in Windows Vista, the company's next operating system. But at least some of the new features will debut much sooner. The software, which will be built into Vista, is designed to offer better synching with portable devices, make it easier to scroll through long libraries of music and be tightly integrated with Urge, a new subscription and download music service co-developed by Microsoft and MTV Networks.

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