Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates must see Google everywhere he looks these days. He must even see Google when he closes his eyes, and enters that lucid dreaming state from which all of Microsoft's great strategies eventually emerge. What he sees at that moment, we imagine, is a Tellytubby landscape that looks a lot like the Windows XP default wallpaper - perhaps with Chairman Bill himself as the sun. But bouncing across this happy vista are the red, green and blue colored balls that have rolled out of the Google playpen.
In Bill's world, the living room TV of the future will look a lot like Google. Only it will look like Google with all the good stuff Google provides taken out: it will be a huge screen of contextual classified ads. A sort of useless, interactive test card logo. Now if this isn't the sign of a man obsessed, we don't know what is.
Is he onto something?
If you ask people what's really wrong with TV, they'll reply that there's nothing on worth watching - that there are no compelling programs that reflect their world. Other comments such as "too many adverts", "too much sex and violence", "idiotic and patronizing programmes" are simply ways of characterizing this dearth of good viewing material. Viewers are astonishingly tolerant of advertising, so long as the programme grabs their attention. But one complaint you almost certainly won't hear is that TV isn't interactive enough. If the people making programs are representative of their audience, and the programs are consistently good enough, TV isn't in any kind of crisis. In fact, we see plenty of evidence to support the idea that the TV and radio broadcast model is in rude health, and is becoming more highly valued than ever, but we'll come to that in a moment.
For Gates, interactivity is an indispensable part of broadcasting in the future. Interactive technologies will render traditional broadcast models redundant, he predicts. Broadcasters and program makers must embrace this tidal wave of interactivity - Gates doesn't say when this will happen, but he's sure it will - and consequently embrace new business models. So far, so familiar: we've heard such rhetoric since 1994. Gates is almost certainly right when he suggests that great TV convenience device, the PVR, upsets the advertisers who fund an important part of the broadcast business. That's why they're fighting hard to limit its ad-skipping capabilities in the courts.
So, rather than face poverty, seeking out a living panhandling on the cruel streets, Bill offers the broadcast executives a helpful hand: the split screen Microsoft TV.
Gates explains that Microsoft has been experimenting with the 1970s-style split screen concept, where half of the TV is the regular broadcast program, and the other half is an interactive page. For viewers with zero attention spans - like Gates himself - the "interactive" page is always available. It will be broadcasting's salvation, he explains, because broadcasters will be able to make up the revenue they've lost from PVR-skipping by forcing viewers to look at Google-style ads.
Only in his lucid dreaming state, this makes perfect sense to Gates.
"We're saying to them that technology will change ... the advertising model and allow for personalized, targeted advertising," he tells the Hollywood Reporter. "To make the ads more interesting so you're less likely to skip them and (give) them more impact because they're delivered to the people the advertiser wants them to be delivered to."
Again, Gates isn't sure how the split screen will work - but he's fairly sure it must. "It's still kind of an unknown. I believe in it totally," he says (A statement which should excite the kind of people who invested in dot.coms, if no one else.) You can see how Bill's premise led him to his conclusion, but is his premise justified?
Let's take a step back, because some very interesting and surprising things are taking place right now.