The modern big-screen, high-definition television is not only taking on the PC for basic Web access. It's now becoming a social networking device serving Twitter and Facebook users -- as they watch TV.
Verizon FiOS TV, which has 3 million subscribers in 16 states, has steadily pushed out new applications over the past year, and most recently the ability for a user to interact with friends on Twitter while also watching a split-screen display with sports, movies or other content such as music and video.
Verizon showed off the capability to reporters at a demonstration center in Waltham, Mass., on Thursday. The carrier is in a race with AT&T's U-Verse TV service, but also a variety of traditional cable TV companies.
FiOS TV's social networking service is an example of how Internet connections, and the content on the Web, is being pushed into new directions. Not only is Verizon supporting the large TV format, but small devices, including the iPhone , that can interact with TVs.
Even though Verizon has not been able to sell the iPhone (which is exclusive in the U.S. to AT&T), it has come up with an Apple App Store application to turn an iPhone into a remote control device for its Verizon FiOS TV service. There is a similar application for the Motorola Droid Android device as well, said Joseph Ambeault, direct of consumer product development for video at Verizon.
Users can tweet using their remote control apps on their smartphones, or by using the universal remote that comes with the FiOS TV service.
So far, Verizon's service is not supporting a keyboard to use with the set-top box that enables the service, but the remote has pre-set "canned" comments that a user can execute when in a Twitter or Facebook session, Ambeault said.
Even with that level of complexity, users like the social networking capability via TV, more than Verizon -- or Twitter -- initially expected, Ambeault noted.
Users like to watch a play in a baseball or football game, then comment with friends, or do the same with a movie or TV show they have in common, Verizon has found. "For some reason, the tweets you see during an awards show are the most outrageous, like, 'Look at what's she is wearing,'" he said.
When Twitter first heard of the concept more than a year ago, it was somewhat apprehensive, but the social networking capability has been popular, Ambeault said. He said there have been 15 million Facebook session on Fios TV in less than a year, and as many as 5 million tweets. "People like the dialog" on a subject or program they have in common with others, he said.
Because social networking and other Internet features are relatively new to Verizon and traditional TV viewers, parental controls must be set by users to permit viewing of sometimes racy tweets or Youtube or Internet content, he added.
A spokesman for Verizon, Les Kumagai, said Twitter and related social networking services are a reminder of what cable TV was supposed to be for viewers more than 30 years ago, when interactive television was touted as a way to enrich citizen interest in public affairs.
Conceptually, Verizon FiOS TV and related interactive technologies could be connected to county and city government legislative bodies, allowing near-instant feedback for elected officials on topics of the day. "The question is whether the elected officials would want to hear from everybody out there," he said, laughing.
Verizon FiOS TV is also enabling users to troubleshoot network and equipment problems on their own, assisted by data stored on central servers that know information about users and their service, Ambeault said.
Users can learn to program their remote control devices with an interactive session on the TV, which is not unlike a service offered by many TV manufacturers except that modern programming services offered by FiOS TV and others have added layers of complexity not previously seen, including billing information for on-demand products and more.
The self-programmed remote has turned out to be a boon for Verizon, too. Since that service became available in December, Verizon has has 2 million customers take advantage of it.
"Support calls for how to program the remote were our top reason for calls before the service and now are almost none," Ambeault said. "Nothing would make me happier than to have all our customer interactions be through an interactive TV session."
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld . Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
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