ZeeVee Recasts Zinc Video Browser for the Cloud—and for a New Generation of Internet-Connected TVs

By the end of the new decade—and probably a lot sooner—television will be just another application of the Internet, the way e-mail and the Web and Twitter are today. All TV sets will connect directly to the Internet, and they’ll have built-in user interfaces that help viewers navigate the universe of digital video content (which is already vast, and will keep growing exponentially).

But we’re not there yet, and the transition is going to be painful and confusing. A handful of companies have stepped forward with software and gadgets designed to bridge the current gap between TV and the Internet: Apple, Roku, Boxee, and ZeeVee are some of the biggest names. None of their offerings are completely satisfying or seamless, but most of these players are working hard to improve their technologies.

Roku, for example, recently added mutiple channels of content to its Internet video player device, which used to stream just Netflix movies. Last month Boxee previewed a gadget called the Boxee Box that lets TV viewers surf all the same TV content available through Boxee’s Mac/PC software, but without a computer in the loop. Apple is the one exception on the list—it hasn’t done much to update its popular Apple TV device since 2008, and CEO Steve Jobs has called TV a “hobby” for the company rather than a business.

That leaves ZeeVee, which has been very busy indeed. The Littleton, MA-based startup reinvented itself early last year after its first consumer product fell flat. (That was a gadget called the ZvBox that converted video from a PC into signals that could travel to a house’s high-definition TVs over coaxial cables.) Now it’s known mainly as a provider of Internet-based systems for connecting high-definition TVs in commercial settings like hotels and bars. But CEO Vic Odryna says the company never quite let go of its original vision of bringing Internet TV into consumers’ living rooms.

Zinc Beta 5 home screen on a Macintosh

Today ZeeVee took the wraps off its latest effort toward that vision. It’s the “Beta 5” version of Zinc, the company’s software for combining all of the video that your Windows or Macintosh PC can access over the Internet and making it easier to manage on a big-screen TV. Like the Boxee application, Zinc Beta 5 gives TV viewers a single interface for browsing and watching Internet TV, whether it’s an episode of “Glee” from Fox’s website, a “Game Rewind” video from the NFL’s site, a streaming movie from Netflix, or a documentary on Hulu.

“In the future, will there be 100 places to go to get Internet video, or will there be just one?” asks Odryna. “Our bet is that there will be 100…But the living room is a different place [from the den or office]. I am leaning back, with a remote in one hand, a beer in the other, and the last thing I want to do is think about navigating to those 100 places. The power that Boxee and Zinc deliver is a harmonized experience.”

Now, I don’t usually write about software upgrades, but this one makes a good Xconomy story, for at least four reasons. First, despite the prosaic name, this “Beta 5” release, which is available starting today, is a big improvement over earlier versions of Zinc, which I’ve reviewed here, here, and here. It works smoothly, and makes a credible and compelling alternative to Boxee. (The New York-based startup has been working on a significantly overhauled beta version of its own video browser software, but hasn’t yet made it generally available.)

Second, the Beta 5 version of Zinc is the first one that’s entirely cloud-based. What this means is that the PC and Mac versions are really just beachheads, and that the same underlying software could one day deliver video to smartphones, set-top boxes, or any Internet-connected device.

Third, ZeeVee is local to Boston—and it must be a sign of something important that both of the leading providers of big-screen video browser technology are on the East Coast, far from the Hollywood and Silicon Valley establishments.

Fourth and finally, the company that attracts the most users to its PC-based video browser right now stands a pretty good chance of succeeding in a near-future world where such software is built directly into TVs, cable and satellite set-top boxes, and other Internet-connected video devices. So the loyalty of millions of viewers, and the revenues that loyalty could eventually help generate, is at stake.

From a user’s perspective, the Zinc Beta 5 release isn’t hugely different from previous versions. The software’s home screen still offers a pre-populated selection of video channels; Zinc says these channels contain more than 100,000 videos overall, including 60,000 TV show episodes and 20,000 movies. This is more or less the same content that’s available through Boxee and other services, since all of these companies have access to the same set of feeds from the major online video distributors like CBS, Fox, Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, et cetera.

The Zinc interface does have a slick new design that makes it easier to browse shows. And there’s a nifty added feature that lets users add movies or TV episodes to their “queue” (a concept borrowed from Netflix), which makes it much easier to go shopping through the channels for shows you might like, then relocate and watch them later.

But the most important changes are under Zinc’s hood. Previous versions of Zinc were true client programs, storing personal data such as a list of the user’s favorites shows and the like on the user’s computer. Zinc Beta 5 stores all that information in the cloud, meaning Zinc’s servers. That means it’s accessible, in principle, from any device that might be running the Zinc interface.

And there’s already one example of such a device: ZeeVee has worked with Yahoo to create a “TV Widget” for Yahoo Connected TVs. (The startup timed today’s Zinc announcement to coincide with Yahoo’s own publicity push around the Connected TV platform at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.) If you own an HDTV with the Yahoo system—they’re currently manufactured by LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio—-you can obtain the Zinc widget from Yahoo’s widget gallery. Then you can use the widget to dive directly into the Zinc interface and all of its channels, without the need for a computer.

Thanks to the cloud architecture, the shows you added to your queue or your favorites from your PC are still there when you access the Zinc widget on your Yahoo Connected TV. “That’s a glimpse of where the future of all this will be,” says Odryna. “You can easily envision lots of other connected devices that could reach out to the central system and give you access to your Zinc account.”

Odryna says it’s a fairly simple matter to port the Zinc browser to any Internet-connected video device—many more of which will be announced at CES, including more Yahoo-like widget platforms for TVs. Hardware makers should like that, since it will let them build more video options into their devices. And content providers should like it too, since, in theory, they only have to make their video streams work with Zinc. They can then let ZeeVee worry about work with each of the device makers.

Zinc is a free download for Mac and Windows PC users, and it costs nothing to watch many of the videos in its channels (though some, such as the Netflix, Amazon, and NFL channels, connect to outside services that do require a subscription). So, at the moment, Zinc doesn’t produce any revenue for ZeeVee. But Odryna says there will be at least three ways for the company to make money on the technology in the future.

First, once Zinc is available on more devices, the company might charge a price for a premium version of the system that allows users to manage their video queues across multiple platforms such as smartphones and TVs. Second, it could charge hardware makers a licensing fee for including Zinc on their Internet-connected video devices. Third, it could earn affiliate fees on content purchased through the Zinc interface. (Pandora, the Internet radio service, does something similar already, collecting affiliate revenue from Apple every time users hear a song on Pandora and then clicks through to the iTunes store to buy the song for download.)

ZeeVee’s main rival in the big-screen browser space, Boxee, is probably looking at similar revenue opportunities. But Boxee can look forward to one additional revenue stream: sales of the Boxee Box, which is being manufactured by D-Link and is due out sometime this year. Odryna says ZeeVee seriously considered building something similar—a “ZincBox”—but its executives concluded, after talks with industry players, that consumers don’t need yet another gadget in their living rooms. (And in any case, the company went that route once before with the ZvBox, and discovered some of the pitfalls.)

“There are already Internet connections in Blu-ray players and cable and satellite set-top boxes and game consoles,” not to mention the Roku Player and Apple TV, says Odryna. In addition, Intel is pushing its new Atom processor as a way to make dozens more consumer-electronics devices Internet-video-ready. “So why would you approach this with yet another box?” Odryna asks.

Boxee is “doing some great stuff,” he says, and he calls it the only company that seems to fully share ZeeVee’s vision of a content-agnostic ecosystem for Internet video. But the difference between the companies, he says, is that “In the Boxee world, they view themselves as being the operating system for that one device in the living room, whereas we have a view that there are going to be lots of these platforms. It’s going to be a tough war to fight. But the ground we would rather hold is just being the connection point.”

Odryna won’t say how many users Zinc has attracted to date. He simply calls it “quite a nice little following,” considering that ZeeVee hasn’t spent any money to market the application. For both Boxee and ZeeVee, he says, the current challenge is to recruit a larger user base. “Once people start down one path, they will stay on that path, unless we do something that upsets them so greatly that they go over to Boxee, or vice versa. So part of our job in the near term is to start to build that loyal following.” And not make any big mistakes.

Here’s a ZeeVee video introducing the Zinc Beta 5 software:

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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