NEW YORK--As Verizon Communications looks for ways to differentiate itself from its cable and satellite TV competitors, the phone company is adding new social-networking widgets as part of a broader plan to create a Widget Bazaar for its Fios TV service.
The Widget Bazaar is essentially a scaled down version of the increasingly popular wireless application stores that are hitting the market these days. Unlike the virtual application stores being developed for wireless handsets, Verizon's Widget Bazaar will not be open to a wide range of developers, and the company will retain complete control over what applications are in the Bazaar.
Instead Verizon will provide its software development kit only to a select group of developers, and the applications will be tested and verified for use. So instead of thousands of apps available for download, Fios TV customers will likely eventually see hundreds of lighter-weight widget apps, said Shawn Strickland, vice president of video solutions for Verizon Communications.
The idea behind the Widget Bazaar is to give TV viewers more ways to engage with the TV content they view. And it will offer advertisers, marketers and content owners another way to connect with viewers.
"We are not trying to re-create the PC experience on the TV," Strickland said during a demonstration of the new features at Verizon's headquarters in Manhattan. "We're trying to enhance the TV viewing experience."
Verizon has already been offering some widgets as part of its Fios TV service. The company first launched these one-click Internet-based applications to provide news headlines and weather to its TV viewers. Then it added widgets to allow viewers to see what other people in their vicinity are viewing and to help them discover popular TV shows.
Now the company is adding widgets for the popular social-networking Web sites Twitter and Facebook. At least initially, each of these applications will only allow users to read and access information. Posting new information will be very limited in the first version of the widgets, Strickland said. This means that users will be able to read updates on Twitter and Facebook, but they won't be able to update their accounts from their TVs.
In its first version the Twitter widget will offer a more generic Twitter experience. Subscribers won't be able to access their individual Twitter accounts. Instead they will be able to see tweets from the entire Twitter community based on either a category or topic they've selected or based upon what they're currently watching on TV. The way it works is that the screen is split into two sections. And on one side a small window plays the video, while on the other side of the screen, the tweets fill up the screen.
The Twitter feed could come in handy while watching a live event, like a baseball game or the presidential inauguration, Strickland said. For example, if a Fios TV subscriber is watching the Yankees baseball game, he can continue watching the game while also following a Twitter feed about the game or the team.
Because the Twitter feed comes from the entire Twitter community, it's not necessary for viewers to even have their own Twitter account. Eventually, Fios TV subscribers will be able to access their own Twitter accounts to tailor the tweets they view from the Fios TV service.
The Facebook widget works in a similar way. Fios TV viewers can continue watching a TV show while accessing their Facebook account on the other half of the screen. When in the Facebook application, Fios TV subscribers can view status updates, photos, and other posted items from their friends or from their own page. Since the application allows pictures to be blown up on a big screen TV, Strickland believes that sharing pictures with friends and family from Facebook will become one of the primary uses of the Facebook Widget.
Unlike the Twitter Widget, which doesn't allow any updates or posts from the TV, the Facebook widget allows users to update their status based on what they are watching on TV. But other updates aren't possible in this first version of the software.
Strickland emphasized again that Verizon is not trying to replicate the Facebook experience from the Web on the TV. But he said that other features and functions will be added down the road. For example, in its first release, the Facebook Widget only allows one user account to be accessed per set-top box. In a few weeks, the application will allow multiple Facebook members to view their profiles and their friends' profiles from a single set-top box.
"We are not trying to re-create Facebook or Twitter for the TV," he said. "Viewers don't want to take time out from their TV. But we are trying to bring these social-networking applications to the mass market in a way that enhances their TV experience."
These two new widgets are just the beginning of what Verizon plans to do with the Widget Bazaar and the Fios TV service in general. The company also plans to add online video viewing to the Fios TV service. Later this month, Fios TV subscribers will be able to search for and view videos from sites such as DailyMotion.com, Veho, and BlipTV. These videos are mostly user-generated or are from independent sources. While Verizon has plans to strike more deals with other online video providers, Strickland said it's unlikely the company will add access to produced content from sites like Hulu.com or from Netflix's video-on-demand service.
Most of the new widgets that will be released will be automatically pushed to subscribers' set-top boxes. And they will come at no extra charge to customers. But some widgets, mostly games, will cost additional money. Verizon already offers some casual games for free as part of the Fios TV service, and they have been a huge success with many subscribers playing the game for an average of 45 minutes each.
One of the main reasons why applications such Facebook and Twitter will initially be consumption-based is because Verizon still hasn't come up with a really good way to provide textual input into the TV experience. Strickland said the company is considering a variety of options for allowing people to input information and interact with the service. One possibility is using smartphones.
"A lot of people are already using smartphones with our wireless service," he said. "The device has been paid for and subsidized already, so it makes sense to use it for other things. I think this adds more functionality at a lower cost than developing an advanced remote control. "
Strickland said that Fios TV customers should expect to see new widgets coming online all the time. The company has greatly reduced the amount of time it takes to develop and roll out the new applications. And it's preparing to introduce a whole slew of new ones in the future. Some widgets to expect in the future include more games as well as widgets developed by programmers and ones to help enhance other online experiences. For example, MTV may want to create a widget to highlight the top song or music video of the day. And Verizon could also offer an online music video widget to stream services like Pandora to the TV.
Verizon's latest enhancements and the emergence of its Widget Bazaar come as the company turns up the heat on its cable TV and satellite TV competitors. While cable has made some technical strides lately to increase bandwidth and functionality, Verizon increasingly is adding more Internet-focused functionality to its service. Strickland believes this is the advantage that the company's all-fiber network has over its competitors. Because it has near limitless bandwidth, it has the capacity to offer advanced interactive services.
Verizon will begin rolling out the new Facebook and Twitter widgets on Wednesday morning in markets in six states including New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Texas. The rest of the Verizon Fios TV markets will get the update starting Thursday. Subscribers will not need to do anything. The updates will come automatically to their set-top boxes.