What the hell is going on with TV?

January 3, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

Google TV. Xbox. Apple TV. Roku. All these gadgets promise to make television more like the web. There's just one hitch: None of them are ready for primetime.

By Jessi Hempel, senior writer

Image of TVs, tablets and devices all wired together haphazardly and showing Dwight from the Office

You don't have to wait for Thursday nights to watch The Office these days. Thanks to the Net, the show's available nearly anywhere at any time -- but you have to know how to find it. That's not always easy.

I had great expectations for Google TV. When the brick-size plastic box that powered it arrived at my home, I was able to hook it up in less than 10 minutes -- I didn't even need directions. I scrolled through specially built apps for YouTube and CNBC, pulled up the Chrome web browser to check my e-mail, and logged on to Twitter (@jessiwrites: tweeting from my TV). Then, the novelty of the Net having worn off, I decided to check out the ABC sitcom Modern Family.

It was no easy feat. I scrolled through my cable guide, but couldn't watch old episodes. I toggled back to the apps, but ABC didn't have one. I found my show on Amazon (AMZN), but I'd have to pay $1.99 an episode on top of the $99 per month I'm paying for cable. I pulled up the browser again to search for Hulu, but the site was blocked. And so I spent my first night with Google (GOOG) TV cross-legged on my couch watching Modern Family ... on my laptop.

After more than a decade of false starts, web TV is here -- sort of. I'm talking about more than just streaming a sitcom on my laptop. We know the web has the power to make any media distribution system cheaper and more efficient. This is different. Thanks to streaming video services like Hulu and Netflix (NFLX) and new portable devices such as the iPad, we've begun to expect that TV should be more like the web itself: social, mobile, searchable, and instantly available. When we can't figure out what to watch, web-based recommendation software ("If you liked Inception, you'll love Heroes!") might do a better job of finding us programs we like than the professionals who program ABC -- or we might just want to check an onscreen guide of our friends' status updates to see which shows they've enjoyed recently. And once we've reached a decision, we want to click and watch on any screen that happens to be nearby. More

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