If there is one clear trend at CES, outside of all the incremental product improvements, it's that 2009 might finally be the year that online distribution for TV busts wide open. Look at all the offerings that send TV programs to your computer, or send computer media to your TV: Dish Network introduced a set-top HD-DVR box that comes "Sling-loaded", meaning that you can send your recorded programs to any computer; Linksys unveiled a new media hub for centralizing your files so you can stream them where ever you like; Netgear trotted out a little box for watching streaming TV on your regular TV, as well as a set-top box that provides access to digital AV files and internet video. This is all on the heels of a widely rumored update to Apple TV that failed to materialize at MacWorld this week; not to mention the already available Netflix Roku, which downloads movies on-demand. All of these gadgets were, until recently, owned primarily by a smattering of enthusiasts. With all these new products, that'll soon change.
Several things are driving these product introductions: Online, via sites like Hulu, the TV watching infrastructure is getting better, and there are more movies and tv shows available. Meanwhile, Netflix is providing on-demand video from a massive (albeit still fairly limited) library that you can access through Xbox, a computer, or the Roku.
All of these products either take the TV or the computer as the starting point, and make it their job to send the entertainment the other way. We still don't have a device or an add-on that's truly agnostic--bridging the fake division between TV and computer. The most tantalizing product we've seen this year is from Samsung, which is going to start loading Yahoo widgets directly into some of their TVs using some new technology by Intel (image above). You can expect other solutions soon: You might imagine a small notebook computer that docks into a superthin TV monitor; given the new pico-projectors, it seems imminent that we'll have cellphones with them built right in; or you might imagine a cloud computing application that centralizes all your entertainment subscriptions and provides a browser app for your TV. We shall see. But if this year's CES is any judge, we can expect gadgets like these as early as next year.