The mobile Web: The future of TV remote control

April 24, 2009

Hands up, anybody who has ever controlled their TV, DVR, game console, DVD player, or other fancy video gadget using the Web rather than a maze of slow clicks on an old infrared remote control.

Anybody? Congratulations, both of you.

I’ve been playing with Verizon’s newly updated Web-based remote control feature to do exactly that and I’m telling you, it’s sweet. Sorry that most of you aren’t FiOS TV subscribers so you won’t be able to try it, but for the few who are, give it a trial run.

You have to have an HD DVR and you have to sign up first, but within 24 hours they’ll get you up and running. You can then log in and control your DVR from your PC. If you’ve ever fallen asleep waiting for your DVR to respond to your remote control as you wade through a labyrinth of menu options, you’ll appreciate the speed and efficiency of this solution. 

verizon-webdvr

Here you see me deleting yet another episode of Bob the Builder, all in the name of research.

Controlling complex TV equipment from the PC is a no-brainer — the next step will be to port all of that control to the mobile phone.

To wit, I’ve been playing with the iPhone app that controls the Boxee player (which as faithful readers will know I have placed on my hacked Apple TV with much rejoicing).  Boxee is relatively simple to control with the Apple TV remote (though I  my kids keep losing the tiny thing) so it’s not like you need to turn to the iPhone app, but why not? Once you start getting the hang of controlling things from a more intuitive interface (the PC with a mouse, the iPhone with its touch surface), it makes you realize that the future of living room control is not to have a $500 Logitech universal remote or even to put a touch screen on your TV set. It’s much simpler than that — we’ll all just use our mobile phones to control our TVs, DVRs, game consoles, and everything else CE makers conspire to place in our living rooms. And that control can be live, as in, here’s what I want to watch right now, or offline, as in, let’s delete all of those Palladia concerts I recorded in HD while I was convalescing that now consume half the DVR hard drive (sorry, Neal Peart and the rest of the Rush gang).

Once we have a protocol for letting mobile devices speak to the TV, they won’t be limited to simple command and control functions. Here are a few scenarios that I can easily conjure:

  1. Want to play Uno on the TV? Okay, you might prefer harder fare when you think of card games. Either way, we can’t play card games at our house until the little ones are in bed because they gnash and tear at the cards. In fact, we can’t play card games at our house after they go to bed because of aforementioned history of gnashing and tearing has depleted our card reserves. But in a mobile-controlled TV world, bent cards are a thing of the past. Imagine if each player could employ their own mobile phone as their hand. The TV can keep the draw pile, the tableau, or whatever else the game requires.
  2. Let me share my photos with you. Today people share pictures and video taken on their mobiles by gathering around the 3-inch screen or posting them on Facebook. But nothing’s more immediate than “publishing” my photos directly to your Connected TV or cable set top box when I drop by for a visit, either over wi-fi or the 3G network. And if I can share photos with your TV from my iPhone, why can’t I also “publish” my mp3 playlist to your surround sound speakers?
  3. Need a keyboard, anyone? As more and more of your friends get Connected TVs and are joining chat rooms to swap ideas about the latest episode of Fringe while it’s airing live, you’ll be the one who doesn’t have to use a cumbersome USB keyboard to add your $.02 to the chat. With an iPhone or Android app that speaks to your Connected TV, you’ll be good to go — whether to enter a username and password or for constructing lengthy analyses of Agent Dunham’s wardrobe.    

Your turn, I’m sure you have better ideas of what such a mobile-controlled TV world could be like. Add your comments and let’s see what rises to the top.


2009 is the year of the Connected TV

March 12, 2009

(sorry to long-time readers for the recent radio silence — between traveling and coming down with two successive bouts of some kind of flu, I have not been keeping up my end of the deal. I’ll make it up to you, I promise :)

I wrote about Yahoo’s TV Widget Engine in January, calling it the Belle of the CES Ball. I still stand by the sentiment, so much so that I wrote a very deep dive on the concept for Forrester clients which was just published this week. If you’re a client, check out the report here (and even if you’re not a client, you can see a summary at the same link). I won’t give away the precious detail here, but let me riff about the report’s implications a bit.

The most important thing Yahoo’s TV Widget Engine does is open a platform for innovation in the connected TV space, I said that before in the original post. However, the innovation that will matter most is programmer-led innovation that enhances TV viewing, by adding interesting information and interactivity over the live TV experience.

Why should content owners do this? Becuase this is the first technology innovation in a decade that will actually encourage live viewing of television. 

What do I mean? Already, there are people who keep their laptops on their laps (where else?) during American Idol or Dexter so they can chat with friends or follow Twitter conversations related to the show. NBC even encourages people to text to a special SMS number during Heroes to get special updates and clues during the show. But all of those exepriences are outside of the TV screen and therefore limited to the few people willing to manage multiple devices. Imagine if broadcasters and programmers could do the work for you, overlaying the experience on the TV screen to increase your enjoyment of the show — as well as your desire to watch it live when the online buzz is the greatest.

The problem is we have a short window in which content owners (networks, producers, publishers, etc.) can establish the habits that will favor them in the long run. If they don’t catch on quickly, they’ll miss this chance to drive *gasp* actual live viewership and instead, technology innovators will focus on widgets that deliver other benefits that aren’t programming-centric. I personally think weather, horoscope, and personal ad widgets — while of interest to specific subgroups — will never catch on on the TV to the degree that program-specific widgets will. Why? Because people watch TV to watch TV, not read the news or scan personal ads. That’s what the PC is for.

Am I right? We’ll find out soon enough because Verizon just announced that later in the fall it will be pushing an open-widget development platform to its Verizon FiOS TV customers’ set top boxes. For those who did not know, Verizon has been developing widgets since 2006. However, the widget environment was proprietary and did not allow outside parties to contribute. Verizon has changed that with this latest version and as a show of force, it has built a Twitter widget designed to automatically scour tweets to find any that mention the show that you are currently watching — change the channel, and the widget will search for and display any new tweets related to the new show on your screen. 

This is a genius move. It demonstrates the value of synchronizing widgets with live TV without waiting for the Yahoo! widget platform to find its way into homes.

If I’m right (and Verizon finds a way to let customers know about this feature — which is always a problem when you push free features to set tops, most people never know they’re there), Verizon’s 1.6 million customers will be a very attractive test best for interactive TV widgets. If you are a developer, get hopping, let’s see what you can do.


Roku’s next steps: Hulu, then Yahoo TV Widgets

February 12, 2009

If you read this blog often, you know I’ve been road-testing a lot of set top boxes for the past two years. I do this because I cover video, but also because it’s a disruptive moment in the history of the video and if there’s lessons to be learned about disruptive innovation, this market provides ample opportunity to be tutored. (All props to Clay Christensen at HBS, by the way, for defining the way we all look at disruptive innovation. That’s worthy of a separate post at a later date.)

After spending significant time with the Roku box during some recent sick days, I have concluded that the Roku is still the box that delivers the most punch, especially considering its price. That’s why the Roku box won our Convenience Quotient analysis on set tops last summer and it’s only getting better as the Roku team adds more content. 

The Roku is the only box that I want more than one of — one for the living room and one for the family room.

But it still has a long row to hoe if it’s going to end up in a million homes. In particular, I see a threat in the form of connected TVs. I’m writing a piece for Forrester on that topic right now, should be out in a few weeks, but the conclusion is pretty optimistic: thanks to supply-side energy, the Yahoo TV Widget space is making it likely that connected TVs will be in more than a million homes by year-end, possibly two million.  

So here’s my prescription for Roku to stay in this game. I haven’t discussed these things with the team there, but I’ll make them a matter of public record so that if I’m right or wrong, at least I’ve been bold.

1 – Get going on Hulu. This might mean starting with CBS (which is dramatically more open to radical syndication moves, as evidenced by the YouTube relationship) or Viacom, as a way to show Hulu that this is the way things are moving. The sooner ad-supported TV shows up on Roku, the sooner it’s a must-have $99 box for everyone.

2 – Become the first set-top box to implement Yahoo TV Widgets. I cannot get this widgets solution out of my mind. It’s such an elegant way to open the market to innovation and I like innovation. From what I’ve learned from the people in charge of the Yahoo TV Widgets strategy, the code to accomodate the widgets should be relatively simple to put on the moderately powered Roku box. But the beauty of having widgets on the Roku box is it would immediately relieve Roku of needing to strike separate content deals with every possible content provider. Instead, it can just let content providers develop whatever they want for the platform, making the box more valuable with each passing day. 

The fact is, every box, DVD player, TV, and game system (Wii Widgets?) will eventually implement Yahoo TV Widgets. (I know that’s music to Yahoo’s ears, but when you do the right thing strategically, it tends to work.) So Roku better hurry. 

Last thought: once these steps have been conquered, it’s time to start courting HBO and other pay TV providers to discuss delivering subscription-based content to the Roku. Not something HBO wants to do (not something Comcast wants it to do), but it’s where things are heading. And as long as HBO is priced higher on the Roku than it would be through Comcast, which is certainly what HBO would have to do, it might be feasible by 2010. 

What do you think?


Sick day with my Boxee-enabled AppleTV

February 12, 2009

Sorry for the radio silence on my blog. I’ve been down for a few days with the same thing everyone else seems to have. But since I’m a workaholic I had to get some value out of my sick time so I spent as many hours as I could watching TV, movies, and miscellaneous video. All in the name of research, of course.

A few things I learned:

  1. The Roku Player’s HD quality is surprisingly good. The upgrade happened earlier this year. Yes, I have hit a few buffering issues as many predicted would be the case — even though I’m on fiber and wired ethernet. But the quality is still sharp and the selection, thanks to Netflix, is expanding dramatically. My wife is getting her Jane Austen fix, my kids are watching all the kids shows they want, and I’m catching everything from PBS documentaries to Clash of the Titans (what kid rasied in that era doesn’t want to see Clash of the Titans again). Not all of that content is available in HD, but we don’t seem to care.
  2. HD DVRs are a pain. I don’t even record The Office and 30 Rock in HD anymore because it takes up way too much space and those aren’t shows that need HD quality to be funny. Lost, Heroes, and Fringe are all still on my HD list, of course. Even nerds have their standards. 
  3. My Boxee-hacked AppleTV seriously rocks. I mean seriously. With Hulu in there, I did a ton of catching up, including things that were already recorded on my DVR, but with faster access to them on the AppleTV I found it more convenient (if you know me, you know convenience is my watchword) to watch via Boxee. I also started really playing with the personal media sharing that Boxee enables from the home network. It’s as clumsy as most other home-media sharing solutions, but I can see it getting better. Now if Boxee only had a business model. But it is now available in Alpha for Windows, so we’ll see how far it can go before it needs some revenue.

Most of all, I have learned that if I needed to buy a second of any these devices, I would buy the Roku. It’s a bit of an act of faith, on the assumption that more content is coming (a separate post on that coming later). But the price is right and we spend hours watching it. Having a second one for the other TV room makes sense. It’s cheaper than the premium you’d pay to build Netflix into an LG or Vizio TV, and it’s more flexible. But I get ahead of myself, I’ll post on that as a separate topic later today.


Vizio takes connected TV to the max

January 8, 2009

I’ve spent much of the week blogging about pre-CES and CES announcements related to bringing the Internet to the TV. I’ve seen many of the things I was expecting: more Netflix in more devices, Blockbuster announcing it would connect to the TV, in short, big names making big plays to get to IP-delivered video and interactive content to the TV screen instead of the PC monitor.

In one of my posts earlier this week, I wrote:

Soon, there won’t be a TV maker who doesn’t offer this connectivity; that includes Vizio, in my opinion, who will clearly see the writing on the wall here. In fact, if Vizio announces something innovative early, it could really maintain its growth position in the US market.  (from Samsung Adds Yahoo! Widgets to its TVs).

As if in fulfillment of my wishes, Vizio yesterday announced exactly that. What makes the announcement worthy of a post is that Vizio not only added one or two things, it added the whole boatload. In fact, when the CES dust settles, we’ll probably find Vizio — a relative newcomer to the TV market and certainly a newcomer to the Connected TV business — will hold the title as the maker of the most connected TV. Here’s a list of partners Vizio is incorporating: Accedo (for games), Adobe, Amazon VOD, Blockbuster VOD, Netflix (so last year by now), Pandora, Rhapsody, and the Yahoo TV Widget Engine I wrote about this morning, which means Vizio will have many more content plays beyond this list relatively soon.   

Vizio is the TV maker to watch as of this moment.

Even the fact that I can no longer call them just a TV maker (they announced a $200 Blu-ray player yesterday as well) is evidence that Vizio is ready to make this recessionary year a big one for the company. And they’re in a good position to do so: value-priced and distributed through value-oriented channels, Vizio can provide high-tech at low cost without having to swallow any pride.

Vizio earns my attention because they are the first to really bring a “many devices, many services” model to the TV. This is something I have written about a lot lately, as I have been predicting it for the past year and have started to see it come to fruition. For example, last year in a speech to a 100 people, I walked them through a 2009-and-beyond TV scenario in which the new TV you bring home literally asks you which services you already subscribe to and immediately connects you to them. By bringing Amazon, Blockbuster, and Netflix into the same TV, Vizio is making my scenario real. The only thing it lacks from my scenario is a pleasing computer voice to help you navigate your many options. And I was just kidding about that part anyway.

As soon as another TV maker catches up to Vizio, my “many devices, many services” model will be complete. Now, the only thing all of these announcements are missing that I explicitly asked for is…Hulu. Add Hulu to this Vizio solution and you almost don’t need cable. Almost. But I’ll save that for another CES post after I meet with Sezmi… TTFN.


Yahoo! TV Widgets are the Belle of the CES Ball

January 8, 2009

Yahoo! has surprised me. Back in August it announced a new TV development platform called the Yahoo! Widget Engine. Developed together with Intel, this Widget engine was billed as the way to get Internet content and functionality to the TV set.

I’ll admit I was skeptical. We’ve heard so many announcements about getting Web content to the TV that my response was, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Today I’ve seen it.

yahoo-widgetsNot just a demo of proposed functionality as is so often the case. But I’ve seen a line of partnerships on the device and content sides that backs up Yahoo!’s claims. And though it will be hard for average viewers to grok why, this is the most important TV-related announcement to come out of CES.

Why, you ask? Because most CES announcements are specific to one device or service. A new video editing software suite, a new portable media player, a new 3D television. Even the announcement from LG that it would build Netflix into a line of TVs is a single-device announcement. Interesting, innovative, and pointing us in the right direction, but ultimately limited by the reach of that single device.

Yahoo!’s announcement, on the other hand, is already having a broad impact. Check yesterday’s press release for more detail if you need it, or better yet, see the whole scenario by visiting the Yahoo! Connected TV site, but here’s the list of TV makers who have signed on to build Yahoo! Widget capabilities into their TVs: Samsung, Sony, LG, & Vizio. Three on that list are hungry market share grabbers who are rising rapidly. Sony is a long-established player whose inclusion on the list teaches us something about the future of the connected TV.

In the old days (read: 2008), connected TVs were built around walled content gardens that required the TV maker to strike content deals and figure out how to promote the content to the viewer. TV viewers are notoriously routine-driven so breaking into their routines was particularly difficult to do. Hence, connected TV activities on HP and Sony devices have been modest to date.

In the new world, TV makers will simply provide access to a common platform, the way a PC does. Think about it: when you buy a PC from Dell, you aren’t limited to the software that Dell has programmed, or even software that Dell has chosen to license to you from 3rd parties (the way the iPhone app store works, hmmm, how old fashioned, eh?). You buy a PC from any maker, it runs software from any developer.

That’s the promise of Yahoo!’s TV Widget Engine. As long as sufficient TV makers adopt it, it will become an open standard for putting content on the TV. Open standards, once adopted, enable content innovation.

What content, you say? Here’s a list of people beyond Yahoo! itself developing TV Widgets so far, a list which is likely to increase by a factor of 10x as soon as a million people have Widget-capable TVs: Flickr, eBay, MySpace, CBS, The New York Times, Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster, Showtime, USA TODAY and Twitter. All major names whose inclusion is likely to tempt others to fall in line. 

I’m meeting with Yahoo! at CES to talk about the future later today. For the first time in a long time, I see Yahoo! playing a significant role in the future of interactive content. Bully for them. It’s just a question of how long until Google decides to jump in and whether TV makers will want to support multiple widget or application systems on their TVs. Plus, I wonder what the long-term payoff to Yahoo! is for building this open system. We’ll talk all of that through. 

This is yet another example of how the software and Internet community is innovating ahead of cable. TV widgets are something cable and satellite have been toying with for years. But they develop too slowly and reach too few customers with their trials to have had an impact. We’ll see how quickly Yahoo!’s Widget Engine can make us forget cable’s attempts to add interactivity to the TV screen.