There’s a joke I have heard several variations of over the last several years.  Question: How do you know when a new tech idea has fully taken hold?  Answer: When Microsoft puts out a competing product.  I couldn’t help but think about that zinger as I read about the new rumors that Microsoft will unveil their own competing Internet television device at CES.  According to The Seattle Times, the device would be a competitor to Apple TV and Google TV and, naturally, will be called Windows TV.

Windows TV would reportedly be an operating system like Google TV, and will run on both set-top boxes as well as future televisions–again… just like Google TV.  One major advantage Microsoft has, however, is that they’ve already developed the interface–Windows TV is rumored to run the Windows Media Center interface.  So people will, in a way, already be familiar with the product.

Windows TV will supposedly cost less than $200, which puts it in the same ballpark with its two main competitors, and will be released in 2011.

It’s easy to look at how late Microsoft has come into some of these emerging markets (like cloud computing, or motion-sensitive video games for example) and call them late-adopters, but I’m not always sure that’s fair.  We have to remember that as much as they overlap, Microsoft isn’t a direct competitor with Apple or Google–not across the board anyway.

Besides, I think that Windows TV is a pretty clear sign that Apple and Google were onto something with their earlier offerings.  It could be a sign that Internet-TV is an idea whose time has come.  Is 2011 the tipping point?  After all, as CNN pointed out earlier today, sales of Internet-ready TVs are up–way up, making up 21% of all TVs sold in 2010–but more than half the owners aren’t using them to connect to the Internet.  Could that be because they aren’t sure how?  Maybe what’s lacking is an interface–an operating system–that helps smooth out the transition to the new technology for users?

Don’t discount Microsoft’s built-in audience or the existing goodwill for the Windows brand.  Just because they’re late to the Internet-TV party doesn’t mean they can’t compete or even dominate a new market like this.  Internet TV is still young enough that most of us are not yet brand-loyal.  We’re still in the “educating the consumer” phase, which means its anyone’s game.  But Microsoft jumping into the fray is a good thing; healthy competition should produce the ultimate win for customers:  fantastic products with low prices.