Free Zinc Browser and Pro Version of ZvBox Breathe New Life into ZeeVee’s Internet Video Technology

3/24/09Follow @wroush

ZeeVee, the Littleton, MA-based startup focused on helping people watch high-definition Internet video on their TVs, today introduced a new version of its free video browser. Formerly called Zviewer—and originally designed for the ZvBox, the firm’s PC-to-TV-over-coaxial-cable appliance—the browser is now called Zinc, and runs on any Windows XP or Vista computer. (A Mac version is coming soon.)

Zinc is designed for viewers who want to hook up their PCs to their televisions and then navigate large amounts of Internet video content from across the living room—the so-called “lean back” mode, as opposed to “lean forward” mode common when you’re watching video directly on your laptop or desktop computer. As such, the Zinc interface is dominated by big tiles and brief, simple command menus. Users flip through TV episodes or movies using either their computer keyboard or a remote control compatible with Windows Media Center software, such as ZeeVee’s own ZvRemote.

In concept, Zinc is very similar to Boxee, a popular Internet video browser for the Mac OS X and Linux operating systems. Zinc and Boxee don’t compete directly, at least for now, since the Mac version of Zinc and the Windows version of Boxee aren’t yet publicly available. But both are examples of an emerging genre of media browsers that make it easy for TV owners to access TV episodes and movies over their Internet connections.

The overt function of Zinc and similar browsers, says ZeeVee CEO Vic Odryna, is “presenting choice in a unified way,” as opposed to having to surf to each provider’s video portal on the Web. “This way I can check out what’s on Amazon using the same interface that shows what’s on Netflix or ABC or Fox, through a very clean interface that shows what episodes are available and what I’ve already watched. It’s very TiVo-like.”

But these browsers, along with Internet TV appliances such as Apple TV and the Roku Player, are also helping to change the economy of mass entertainment. By eliminating the technical and navigational barriers that once made it difficult to access Internet video from the big screens of conventional televisions, the new video aggregators threaten to further erode the cable networks’ historical stranglehold over home video entertainment.

And that’s finally starting to make the cable companies nervous, according to Odryna. “Even nine months ago, the viewpoint was ‘You kids can go play all you want, [Internet video on TV] is just a toy.’ Now the tone is changing really fast. ”

The Zinc home pageZinc’s predecessor, Zviewer, was first released as a standalone piece of software last November. But Zinc improves on it in several big ways. It allows access to more content—including all CBS shows and instant Netflix movies—as well as more information about each show and simpler navigation between them. The company says the browser can be used to access more than 15,000 movies and tens of thousands of TV shows. Because it’s based on the Mozilla code base, users also have the option of installing Zinc as a plugin for Firefox, rather than downloading the stand-alone Windows application. (A Macintosh version could be out as early as next month, Odryna says. ZeeVee allowed me to test an early version on my own Mac, and it worked nearly flawlessly.)

The evolution of Zinc is itself an interesting case study in the fast-changing market for video technology. Originally, Zviewer was developed as the user interface for the ZvBox 100, introduced by ZeeVee in May 2008. The ZvBox 100 contained a sophisticated encoder/modulator that transformed streaming video output from a Windows PC into a radio-frequency HDTV signal that could then travel over the coaxial cables already installed in most households and be displayed on any television in the house. The idea was cool, but the implementation was flawed. I tested out the $499 ZvBox 100 at home last September, and ran into so many technical hurdles while trying to make it work that I reluctantly concluded the device just wasn’t ready for prime time.

Odryna told me this week that he more or less agrees with that assessment. “What did we learn? First, that the complexities of installation were really too much for a lot of people. Another problem was cost. Even though this was a piece of equipment that would bring $20,000 in the broadcast world, the $500 price tag was too high. Then there was the complexity of asking a PC to do what we wanted—to broadcast in 720-line resolution. It worked in a lot of cases, but not everywhere.”

The company ultimately abandoned the ZvBox 100 after selling fewer than 10,000 units, Odryna says. “Had we continued to ride that horse, we would probably be dead as a company,” he says.

But as the ZvBox 100′s prospects with consumers sank, something unexpected happened. “From the day we launched the product,” says Odryna, “we got a huge deluge of calls from the commercial world”—meaning institutions such as hotels, restaurants, bars, hospitals, and airports that need to supply TV programming to large numbers of consoles and are looking for a cheap way to get high-definition signals to them. “If you walk into a hotel today, they all have HDTVs, but … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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