Sezmi opens the door to a new kind of set top box

January 9, 2009

I have written a lot over the past two years about the future of the set top box, both on the cable and satellite side as well as on the consumer retail side. On the consumer retail side, there are boxes that are designed to simulate the cable DVR experience like those sold by TiVo (and as announced at CES this week, by Digeo). And there are those designed to provide over-the-top video experiences like the Roku Netflix player, the Apple TV, and the like. 

Though TiVo has tried to provide the best of both worlds — its DVRs can play a wide variety of over-the-top content from online streams to Amazon Unbox video on demand — because it requires a cable subscription, it ends up feeling like a more expensive version of cable.

So far, no one has seriously offered a DVR that doesn’t require cable or satellite service, even though 60% of what people watch is offered for free, over the air, via antenna. And in most major markets, it’s broadcast in HD.

Let’s do some thinking: imagine a DVR that pulls down CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX and PBS from the air, in HD quality, so you have continuous access to the vast majority of content you are interested in. You pay no subscription for this content. And because you’re one of the 62% of US households with broadband, you also have access to millions of online video experiences, some of which are free and others — like Blockbuster OnDemand and Amazon UnBox — are pay-per view experiences that are at least as good as what cable offers, with the extra advantage that they can be managed with a PC.

This DVR could be sold at retail for a few hundred bucks. It would carry no subscription fees and for at least 20% of the population, it could replace cable. Only the people who have to have Showtime and HBO would be left out in the cold, as long as ESPN, Discovery, and CNN keep putting so much of their content online.

Welcome to the world of Sezmi (as in “open Sezmi” — cute, eh?): an over-the-air DVR that adds online video. And if my estimations are correct, you’ll be seeing Sezmi sold by major retailers later this year.

sezmiThink about it — for those of us who spend $100 a month on cable, wouldn’t Sezmi’s value proposition be a great relief? That’s what Sezmi is banking on and the retail partners it’s in hushed conversations with here at CES. I sat down with Sezmi yesterday in their private suite at the Venetian (much nicer than my discount room at the Sahara, I’ll confess). This is a company I’ve been following since they were just a rumor in mid-2007 and were called Building B. They re-branded as Sezmi in 2008 and I last met them at NAB last year where they talked about offering their set top box to tier 2 telcos as a way to compete with cable without having to lay miles of fiber. At the time, I told them that the telco solution was nice, but that I thought they stood a chance of offering this box at retail and that 20% of the population would be interested. That’s 22 million households. That’s more people than have an iPhone. In other words, it’s a target worth pursuing.

Imagine how pleased I was yesterday to hear that they are pursuing both avenues aggressively — working with telcos as well as going straight to retail. I have no doubt we’ll see the boxes in retail later this year. And I’ll be one of the first customers in line. In my case, I won’t be replacing cable, I’ll be adding TV to another room of the house that currently doesn’t have it. That’s a use case I haven’t even modeled and would potentially open a much bigger target audience. Even those economics are attractive, because the additional DVR in my spare room would run me $14 a month — more than $150 a year. One Sezmi box, even if it were priced at $300 would pay for itself after two years of use.

This is Sezmi’s potential even without considering the very elegant consumer interface their box offers or the potential solution they have to solve the ESPN, Discovery, even Showtime problem over time.

Too bad Sezmi wasn’t in retail for this past holiday season. In the words of one retailer who is in talks with Sezmi: “If we had this thing in stores last October as the recession hit, we would probably have 5% market share right now.”

Agreed.

Advertisements

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.


Next up: online video sites start programming

December 10, 2008

Programmers. It’s a word that broadcast and cable networks use to describe themselves. They don’t just deliver video, they “program,” meaning they select the content to fit the audience, and they arrange it in just the right order to satisfy. 

Programming also happens to be what online video sites need next. Sure, letting me search for content is a given, but what about tailoring the content options so they feel like they have been “programmed” just for me?

This is a great intro for a new weekly feature I’ll be adding. Beginning this week, I’ll be embedding the New Media Minute from Daisy Whitney at TVWeek on a regular basis. I like much of what Daisy has to say — she’s often focused on some of the online video production and management topics that I don’t get to, so her content will be a great add. Plus, Daisy gets it, so her point of view is worth sharing.

From her this week: 

What if online video was more like Amazon or Netflix? Imagine video-centric sites like Hulu or NBC.com actively recommending videos just for you…The future of online programming could get a lot more personalized as video sites develop the brains to predict and serve up shows tailored for an individual viewer’s tastes, reports the New Media Minute. For details on what this future might look like, check out this week’s edition. You’ll also hear from YouTube documentarian Chuck Potter about what it takes to be a Web star.

Vodpod videos no longer available.