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.


There’s an online TV storm a brewin’

March 27, 2009

I wrote earlier this week about how Hulu is now streaming as many views as Comcast does via VOD. But what I didn’t take time to include is the dark side of online TV shows. The fact that many networks are pulling down some of their top shows (e.g., The Mentalist and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.), and how the ads on these wildly popular shows are not all selling.

So I took the time to compile all the evidence that an online TV show storm is brewing and did an analysis for Forrester clients that was published earlier in the month. The great news is that Forrester recently recognized its 10,000th Twitter follower and to celebrate, they let him choose a Forrester report to make available to all of Forrester’s Twitter followers. This individual (@jpthomp on Twitter) chose my report about the coming online TV show backlash. That means good things for all of you, go to the following link to register to get a copy of the report (thanks, jpthomp!). http://snipurl.com/emg3g 

When you get a hold of the report, you’ll see that I envision a lot of experimentation with online show availability throughout the rest of this TV season and possibly even throughout the rest of the year. And with online TV shows failing to sell out their ad inventory, some naysayers inside the major networks are going to be arguing for much more aggressive anti-online measures. We think it will take some time, but online TV can be brought back around again as the recession matures and as executives realize that online TV is not a separate kind of TV, it’s simply the extension of existing TV experiences across multiple platforms. In the report, we sum up the call to action this way:

OUR PLEA: INTEGRATE ONLINE TV INTO THE TOTAL VIEWER EXPERIENCE

If you expect us to end with a summary of all the reasons that online TV shows are the future of TV and a plea to preserve this threatened species, prepare to be disappointed. We said online TV was the most important thing to happen to the video industry not because it was the future of TV in and of itself but because it would help move us quickly into the future of TV, something Forrester calls OmniVideo; this is a state in which consumers can watch TV shows and movies on any platform they want, controlling what, when, and where they watch. In this future, not only will consumers be satisfied, but producers and distributors will make more money than they do today. That’s why we now plead with the industry to quickly learn from the mistakes they’re going to make in the next few months and get back to fully supporting online TV shows — not as a separate business but as an integrated consumer experience that complements and enriches traditional TV.

Check out the report yourself, see what you think. Let’s buckle our seat belts and see what happens over the next few months.


Hulu breaks 300 million view barrier

March 26, 2009

This week, Hulu released comScore’s latest VideoMetrix chart that shows the site broke through the 300 million views in a single month barrier. This barrier is significant for a few reasons: 1) it’s higher than I thought it would be, so I’m humbled; and 2) it’s roughly the same number of streams that Comcast does each month in its onDemand system. To illustrate both points, let me quote myself from last October when Hulu reached a meager 150 million views:

This is phenomenal, it’s precisely the year-end target I had for Hulu in December. Now I have to ratchet that up to 200 million. To go from 0 to 200 in under a year is remarkable. Consider that in its best months, Comcast VOD streams 300 million video views. That’s a big number. Hulu will be at the level some time next year. Without having to invest in VOD servers the way Comcast did. (See my original blog post for more.)

Let me reproduce the VideoMetrix chart (source: comScore, February 2009) so we can do some analysis.

comScore Video Metrix February 2009

Quick note for those new to this kind of stuff, “aHulu (Hybrid)” refers to the fact that some portion of Hulu’s views come from its syndication partners like AOL and MSN. That means any Hulu views that occurred there are not counted there, instead they count back at Hulu. We don’t have any solid estimates of what portion of views are coming from Hulu.com itself vs. its syndication partners, but I have a hunch it’s shifting more toward Hulu over time as Hulu has attempted to brand itself more aggressively.

Looking at this chart, we can do some fun math (I know, not two words you’re used to seeing together). We can see, for example that the average viewer is watching Hulu about 16 minutes a week, far ahead of everyone but YouTube (which accounts for the lion’s share of the Google Sites line). That means the average viewer might watch a show every other week, which indicates the beginning of a habit. Hulu beats everyone else in minutes per stream, at 6.7 minutes, comapred to 3.5 for both Google and CBS. That’s obviously because Hulu people are watching full-length content. Most interesting, though, is the fact that Hulu now accounts for 5% of all online video viewing minutes. The only other site that has more than a single percent of viewing minutes is YouTube, which accounts for 29% of viewing minutes.

Yes, YouTube still rocks the house. But Hulua is clearly the second most important US online video provider. 

And it has only been in business for a year. I’m starting to regret boasting about the fact that I never saw Hulu as a YouTube killer the way some people did when it was first announced. While it’s not technically a YouTube killer (these numbers attest to that), it’s certainly a YouTube distractor since it actually has a model for making money from these views, which  YouTube does not. 

 


LG adds Netflix to TVs in a small step with big implications

January 5, 2009

Surely hoping to jump ahead of the CES announcement blizzard that is about to strike later this week, LG and Netflix have announced that LG is releasing the first TV sets that stream Netflix titles directly to the TV, without the help of a separate box (as is the case with the myriad solutions we have already discussed on OmniVideo like Roku, Xbox 360, and even LG Blu-ray players). See Brad Stone’s piece at the New York Times for some more reporterly detail. 

This is a big deal. LG wants to do this because it needs to keep TV prices from the gutter; giving people content that they already have access to — but on the more pleasing screen known as the TV — is a great way to keep prices up.

Netflix obviously wants to do this because in its plans for world domination, offering a service that can serve you across channels (with DVDs and online streams) is a great way to provide the best of the analog and the digital worlds. Even though our own research has shown that the recession is convincing nonsubscribers that they don’t need Netflix, moves like this one certainly reassure existing subscribers that they’re getting their money’s worth.

I make a big deal out of this because of the model change that it represents for both the manufacturers and the content providers. It circumvents cable, it puts CE makers in a new role of content acquirers, and it signals a new way of looking at devices: as conduits through which many services can be delivered. I call this the “many devices, many services” model. With that paradigm in place, expect rapid innovation in products and services. Even in a recession, perhaps especially so.

However, a note of context is in order. A big question I’m hoping to answer with surveys this year is how many people will own Net-connected TVs by the end of the year. It can’t be many. If you imagine that 10% – 12% of US households buy a TV each year, it’s hard to believe that even 10% of them (1% of total) will be Internet-connected. Mostly because there aren’t that many Net-connected TVs on the market. A few from LG, Samsung, HP, Sony, with more likely to be announced this week at CES. And they haven’t sold well to date because there wasn’t much to offer through them other than walled content gardens with a smattering of swimsuit videos and re-runs of Facts of Life

Which is why the next big thing I’m waiting to hear at CES (or if not then at NAB) is a Hulu-connected TV. I’ll let you know when it happens.


Why I don’t use my Apple TV anymore

January 2, 2009

This is an important post, one that will set up a few more posts in the next few weeks. The small question is why I don’t use my Apple TV anymore, the big question is why the overall category of Digital Media Adapters (DMAs, as people in the biz call them) has failed to take off.

Let me start with the small question: Why has my Apple TV been unplugged for the last six months?

I was a very enthusiastic buyer for the Apple TV back when it debuted in early 2007 (so long ago, eh?). I had spent much of 2006 buying TV shows on iTunes. I have all the Battlestar Galactica episodes, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (short-lived though its witty repartee was), and the first two seasons of Lost. The Apple TV seemed the ideal way to bring those shows to the TV yet still have them on my laptop while traveling. I not only bought an Apple TV the week it was released, I publicly predicted that the Apple TV would likely sell a million units. 

Then something amazing happened. All the shows I was buying on iTunes became available for free via online streaming. I could spend less, watch more, all without managing precious hard disk space. I stopped buying iTunes episodes altogether. My Apple TV suddenly became a very expensive way to watch family photo slideshows. I tried to watch YouTube on it, but that’s terribly annoying (look for a new post later this month on the question of watching YouTube on the TV screen, I’m still waiting for an explanation of why we would want to do this more than once).

So I unplugged the HDMI cable from the Apple TV and moved it to the Roku box which we watch a ton more than we ever watched the Apple TV. Apple TV has not, to my knowledge reached my original goal of a million units. Though I believe they have sold between half a million and 800,000.

That answers the small question. Now for the bigger question: why is this category not taking off? I’ve addressed this question many times, starting with a whole Forrester report in which we found — using our convenience quotient methodology — that over-the-top set top boxes (what I prefer to call DMAs) suffer from some stiff competition. Namely,  your DVR and DVD player. If you have both, which 30 million households do, you can do most everything you would want to do with a DMA for a lot cheaper. 

But even that powerful duo of DVR+DVD is about to get challenged by an up-and-comer: online video, delivered to the TV set. That’s what the story of 2009 will be. And it’s already happening more often than you think. I have a whole Forrester Report planned on the topic, due in February, so I’ll share more data soon, but suffice it to say that about 5 million homes already watch online video on their TV sets a month. That’s much more than have bought or will buy a DMA. It also suggests the path that DMAs must take. More on that later. 

What do you think? Do you have much use for your Apple TV or other DMA?

(Note, read the January 5 follow-up to this post about hacking the Apple TV to watch Hulu on it)


VUDU creates open development platform for TV

December 16, 2008

They say if you ask, you shall receive. Last week, I asked. I said:

So who is going to bring an open development platform to the TV in a commercially viable way? My money’s on Roku in the short run. Who else has the guts (or the financial imperative) to do this? One backdoor might be to create a TV set top that is truly DLNA compliant. Then people could create PC applications that feed DLNA content to the set top. I’ll keep my eyes on this for you. (For more on this, read my post called Joost’s iPhone App a Sign of Things to Come).

I asked and today I received. VUDU has debuted an open set-top-box development platform called VUDU RIA. At the same time, VUDU made sure to kickstart the application development process by building a bunch of apps to show how easy it is to provide Web-like experiences to their set top boxes. They have flickr, Picasa, YouTube, as well as many online video channels.

This is it, folks. This is what we all have been waiting for. Now if only VUDU could sell more boxes so that developers would have an incentive to fill the world with VUDU applications.

If you don’t understand why I’m so excited, may I direct your attention to the iPhone App Store. This is perhaps the most important decision Apple was ever dragged kicking and screaming to make. The iPhone App Store has created an environment where thousands of developers have innovated to provide consumers with experiences, content, and services that they value. All without having to cut deals with Apple (which would inhibit innovation). Yes, there are still issues with Apple’s random and arbitrary decisions about approving iPhone apps, but this genie is completely out of the bottle and flying high so Apple will have to cede more and more control.

VUDU wants to benefit from that scenario. They can imagine a world in which VUDU RIA becomes a default language for developing TV-based apps. Yes, they want other CE makers to adopt VUDU RIA. They’ve been smart about it — they have designed around a very limited set top box spec: 300 MHz processor with 128MB of RAM. That means a TV maker like VIZIO could design its first Web-ready TVs to that spec and immediately have content to offer buyers, without having to create a custom environment of their own and do content deals. They can simply plug into the dozens and hopefully hundreds of apps built in VUDU RIA.

Of course, they’re not the only ones with this vision. Intel and Yahoo demonstrated a TV widget language they want the world to adopt. But VUDU has a box and real apps, where the Yahtel approach is still an idea for now. And don’t forget Roku and Sling, both of whom I have written about who have a similar ambition.

This is the most important thing that will happen in TV in 2009. The battle of the development platforms. And notice that nary a single cable provider is on the list of combatants. Hmmm.


Joost’s iPhone App a Sign of Things to Come

December 11, 2008

A relatively silent shot was fired the  first week of December which, though it was not at first heard around the world, will eventually change the way all media are distributed. Sound provocative enough? 

I‘m talking about Joost rolling out its iPhone application. This changes everything.

You might think I’m going to on and on about how mobile video is eventually the future, blah, blah, blah, but I’m not. Because it’s not. Mobile video will be a very nice complement to the TV and the PC. It will remain the third screen for as long as you can imagine. This post is not about the future of mobile video.

Instead, I’m talking about what I have been calling the “many devices, many services” model of media consumption in many of the speeches I give. This model follows nicely in line after the “one device, one service” model, which is best embodied in the iPod/iTunes or Kindle/Amazon combinations. This is a fine model, usually one that a new technology category will start with. But that model is quickly followed by a “one device, many services” model. This is the case with the Sony eReader, which, unlike the Amazon Kindle, has published an open development platform which allows any bookseller in the world to sell books into the eReader ecosystem. One device + many services. 

Before we move into the “many devices, many services” model, a quick interim step called the “many devices, one service” model flourishes briefly. This is best exemplified by the Netflix on LG, Xbox, Samsung, TiVo, and so on model. I love this model and have written about it copiously.

But what we will see next is what Joost has done by exploiting the iPhone’s application development environment. It has volunteered itself as a service on the iPhone, without Apple ‘s express permission. In other words, in the “many devices, many services” model, devices are built with open platforms that allow any (ergo: many) services to spontaneously connect, without doing a biz-dev deal. 

Oily Britney Spearks, Star Trek, Victoria's Secret, any guesses what target audience Joost appeals to?

Top Joost Picks: Oily Britney Spearks, Star Trek, Victoria's Secret, any guesses what target audience Joost appeals to?

“Many devices, many services” is the future of video. And it requires the use of an open platform and open protocols. Joost, which got its start as a P2P video delivery mechanism, has since opened itself to wider consumption by going straight IP. Once it speaks IP, Joost can easily be ported to any IP device, including the iPhone. Including the T-Mobile G1. And so on. It has been so successful on the iPhone so far that it’s regularly in the top 10 free applications on the iPhone App Store (see pic, today it’s #5, yesterday #2, it see-saws).

All we need now is a (commercially-viable) open development platform for the TV set-top box. We already see a rabid community of Apple TV hackers who are writing their own code to create an open platform out of the walled garden Apple built. (I’ll write more on that later in the month because I’m trying it out myself.) And Comcast and Cox and Verizon will take years before they consider an open platform — they’d rather charge you for everything you want to do, even if they only enable you to do it badly, which is the case with things like whole-home DVR.

So who is going to bring an open development platform to the TV in a commercially viable way? My money’s on Roku in the short run. Who else has the guts (or the financial imperative) to do this? One backdoor might be to create a TV set top that is truly DLNA compliant. Then people could create PC applications that feed DLNA content to the set top. I’ll keep my eyes on this for you.

In the meantime: Joost iPhone users. Are you using the app? Does it work as advertised? Satisfied? If not, this could slow down the proof of concent the “many devices, many services” model needs, so I hope not. Let me know.