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Panasonic Attempts Leap-Frog of Vizio and Samsung Internet TV Plans

Not to be outdone by rivals Vizio’s and Samsung’s plans to bake Internet interactivity into some models of HDTVs, Panasonic Consumer Electronics announced last week its own plans to support downloads of full length TV shows and movies via Amazon’s Video on Demand service. Introduced last year but limited to mostly short-form content sources like YouTube, Panasonic’s Viera Cast service will now allow certain HDTVs and Bly-Ray disc players with Ethernet connections to access Amazon’s Video On Demand library of more than 40,000 movies and TV shows. In addition to the PZ850 plasma television line which will now have access to the Amazon content, Panasonic will add three new models of Viera Cast plasma TVs as well as select Blu-ray players.

"In talking to our consumers, Panasonic identified a strong desire to have access to a wide range of video on demand services directly through their television," said Merwan Mereby, Vice President of New Business Development, Panasonic. "The addition of Amazon Video On Demand's premium service to our Viera Cast offerings delivers the ultimate entertainment experience to consumers.”

While competitors have been investing in more limited versions of Internet-enabled content access via Yahoo TV Widgets and other means to provide snippets of online video and information services, Panasonic’s move is one of the first to bake a robust long-form player into an HDTV. This move is surely a shot over the bow of HDTV competitors as well as purpose-built Internet video set-top boxes such as the $99 Roku player, which gives access to Amazon and Netflix libraries. Together with the content from YouTube, Picasa Web Albums, and news and weather information, Panasonic’s delivery of the Amazon service provides a broad suite of entertainment capabilities from the couch that is beginning to rival what you can get from the less comfortable “lean forward” experience using a computer.

Of course, as is often the case for entertainment devices and services, the devil is in the details and intuitiveness and ease-of-use will be crucial for user adoption. It remains to be seen how much Internet utility you can pack into a TV without it becoming a TV/computer hybrid—with all the complexity and clunkiness that entails. Panasonic claims the new service will provide “instant playback, no downloading, no waiting and no subscription fees.” We can only imagine that the interface is similar to other devices’ implementations of Amazon VoD, which have been mostly user-friendly. To make it a bit easier, Viera Cast is accessed via a single button on the television remote control and requires no subscription fee beyond what you pay for Amazon downloads.

I thought price would also be an issue since it seemed like Panasonic was only offering this service on high-end plasma TVs, but checking at Amazon I found a Viera Cast 42” model for only $1099.99-- a pretty good deal for an HDTV with all this functionality.

As we have said before, the Internet-connected HDTV battle is just heating up, as manufacturers realize the potential of “sticky” content relationships and a new business model that no longer requires consumers to replace their entire TV to get new features. Much like with computers, this software-based business model allows manufacturers to add valuable new features and services with a simple upgrade via the unit’s Internet connection (usually Ethernet or WiFi). The potential is vast.

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