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.

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Apple TV vs. Roku vs. SlingBox

April 16, 2009

NOTE: This post is nearly four years old but continues to get traffic, enjoy the read, though I shut down comments years ago because of spam, sorry. In the meantime, please check out my book, Digital Disruption, published Feb 2013 at forr.com/DDbook.

Original post:

This is now the third post I’ve written where I’ve confessed that some unscheduled downtime for health reasons proved to be a marvelous excuse to lay on the couch and watch a lot of TV shows and movies. In my case, I can also claim it’s research because I have to try out all the gadgets in my video setup, which keep changing thanks to upgrades. So in my most recent (and hopefully final) hiatus, I spent some quality time with the Apple TV (hacked to include Boxee), the Roku (recently enhanced with Amazon Unbox capability), and the SlingBox + SlingCatcher combination. Some thoughts:

  • Apple TV still doesn’t float my boat. I did an extensive post on this some weeks back lamenting the fact that this box doesn’t do more than it does because despite repeated attempts to give it a break, I still only find it handy for two things: 1) watching movie previews (which I’m a sucker for, especially anticipating the summer releases), and 2) watching Hulu thanks to Boxee. Now that Boxee has added Pandora streaming — brilliant move, guys — it’s even that much more interesting to me. I personally believe this “hobby” — as Jobs and others at Apple keep calling this product — is headed for the trash pile unless it finds a way to stream ad-supported video and then builds an iPhone-like app store to allow 3rd party development for the box.
  • Roku + Unbox doesn’t do much for me. I’ve written extensively about Roku’s sucker punch, its $99 Netflix box that is so easy to use that it is flying off of Roku’s shelves. And I was genuinely interested in the Amazon Unbox upgrade that happened a few weeks back because I wanted to see how well it was integrated into the experience. The integration is smooth and elegant. However, I found myself questioning the value of the addition. At my fingertips I have 3 ways to get movies on demand: my cable system, Apple TV, and my Roku + Amazon. And they all have similar problems — it’s hard to navigate that many movies effectively unless you’re looking for an obvious choice like the Dark Knight. Though I will admit I used the Roku the most of the three boxes, 99% of it was spent trawling through our queue of 150 Netflix Watch Instantly titles. The fruit: I strongly recommend The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a haunting and poignant true tale of a man who suffered a massive stroke that left him with only the use of one eye. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest Netflix Watch Instantly option. While there, do everything you can to avoid Sphere, yet another Sharon Stone movie you don’t need to see.
  • SlingBox + SlingCatcher. The SlingCatcher is a loaner from the people at Sling. I’ve used a demo before and was fully aware of its features, but there is something to be said for having it in your home for an extended visit. Here’s what I learned: 1) the people at Sling can do more with video quality over limited bandwidth than anyone I’ve dealt with. I’ve always been impressed with the SlingPlayer’s ability to give me great quality video over wireless connections at home or on the road. But the SlingCatcher has to do one more thing, it has to be able to sling portions of your computer screen to the SlingCatcher. I fully expected the quality of this experience to be subpar. Uh-huh. It’s remarkable. Take a standard size Hulu window, tell your SlingCatcher you want to sling the video to your TV screen and boom, in a few seconds you’re watching full-screen web video from your computer on your TV with no wires attached. Genius. It’s also relatively impractical, however, so as much as I was thrilled to do it, I haven’t done it spontaneously.

By spontaneous, I mean, when I say to myself, “Hmm, I want to watch some video,” the three responses my brain offers are: the PC, the DVR, and the Roku Box, in that order (the DVR follows the PC because with six children, the competition for the DVR is pretty intense). The others don’t come into it unless I’m trying to test something or my first three options are occupied. Lately, I’ve started supplementing that list with some DVR cheating via SlingBox (no need for SlingCatcher), where I can use my PC to snoop in on the DVR while the kids play the Wii or watch a Blues Clues DVD.

I pay close attention to that spontaneous response because it’s the beginning of a habit that will eventually form.

My habits will form differently than yours (you probably don’t have six wonderful children to shape your environment as I do), so it’s not important what my habits are or even what yours are, but what they are in aggregate. To that end, I will keep surveying our fellow citizens to see what habits are emerging. In the meantime, what early habits and preferences are emerging in your life?


Why Hulu is clashing with potential partners

February 23, 2009

Two news items from last week are worth commenting on in the same post:

  1. Hulu insisted that Boxee pull its Hulu player from Boxee. For the un-nerdy, Boxee is the open-source media player software that I put on my Apple TV a few weeks back. Until last week, it allowed you to access Hulu online videos direct to the TV without the help of a PC. 

    The Boxee/Hulu experience is tremendously satisfying. Plus, it preserves all the advertising that Hulu needs to sustain itself. However, by making it super easy (some might say, convenient) to get online TV shows to the TV, Boxee is a threat to Hulu’s content partners, many of whom are still petrified about cannibalizing linear TV shows. So while those partners may be willing to support PC-based viewing, the moment Hulu is easily accessed on the TV, they get creeped out. Never mind that 5 million PCs in the US are currently connected to TVs for exactly this kind of experience — far more than AppleTV or Roku will ever have.
     

  2. Hulu pulled its content from syndication partner TV.com. TV.com is a CBS-owned TV fan site that previously focused on chat rooms and clips, but as of a month ago announced an online TV player strategy designed to monetize its 5 million viewers more effectively. The secret sauce was access to Hulu content (Fox + NBC) as well as CBS content, delivered through a player experience that was remarkably Huluesque.

    Design infringement aside, it’s hard not to see this one as an effort by Hulu to persuade CBS to allow CBS content to join the Hulu experience. If it’s not such an effort, it should be. Hulu is eager to allow syndication partners like Fancast and IMDB to succeed, but it doesn’t really want to enable CBS to have all the benefits of Hulu content without having signed up to be an official part of the system. Seems fair. Honestly, the only reason CBS wouldn’t want to do this is it would mean acknowledging that its costly and time-consuming solo syndication efforts were not enough. 

What’s going on here: Hulu is getting more and more powerful every day. And not just because it managed to get Alec Baldwin to promote it during the Super Bowl. It’s because Hulu gives people the thing they want most: easy access to top TV shows. But with great power comes great responsibility, at least in the mind of TV execs who suspect that Hulu will eventually erode their TV business (which has been steadily eroding anyway, not on an overall basis, but on a per-show basis).

With ad dollars tightening in a recession — across the board, mind you, not just in online video — TV execs who never liked the idea of online video in the first place are going to claw their way back into prominence inside their companies and start arguing for more restraint. We’ll see more removals of TV shows like The Mentalist, more announcements like that from SciFi about postponing Hulu streaming of  Battlestar Galactica until 8 days after broadcast.

All of this is part of something I call the coming online video backlash. It’s going to take this whole year, and it’s going to inspire a lot of hasty moves on the part of TV executives to pull previously available content. And consumers are going to hate it.

I don’t envy Hulu’s position in this. It has to keep the lines of access open to the providers of top TV content, but it has to make good on its promise of serving viewers. So far, it has done a great job, but at some point, it’s going to be forced to do something that will begin to tarnish its brand. I don’t personally think the Boxee removal qualifies — only a few tens of thousands of us are nerdy enough to have hacked our Apple TVs — but sometime soon, somebody at Viacom or Fox or Sony Pictures will recall content that was previously available. Expect it to happen around sweeps weeks or the season finale weeks. It’s gonna get ugly.


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.


I hacked my AppleTV…and I liked it

January 5, 2009

With obvious homage to Katie Perry, my title today refers to my escapades over the holiday dusting off my Apple TV (which I wrote about last week, confessing that it had remained unplugged since early 2008 — in fact, I lost the mini-remote and offered my kids $3 to scour the TV room to find it).

That’s right: I plugged my Apple TV back in, hacked it, and have used the Apple TV more in the last two weeks than I ever did even back before I unplugged it. 

The hacking was done thanks to the folks at Boxee.tv. Boxee is a little company that has been flying under the proverbial radar for some time but has recently made a splash since its open-source video player was ported to the Apple TV. Boxee tells me that they have users in the six digits and that they believe roughly half of them are Apple TV users. That means two things: a) this software solution is hot, and b) it solves the Apple TV problem for owners like me who felt like a $329 box to watch VOD was a bit silly if it couldn’t also play a few other things.

Boxee’s software player essentially aggregates online video feeds from a variety of sources, including Hulu, YouTube, Comedy Central and more. It then channels those feeds into an interface that can be put on Macs, Unix boxes, and most recently, the Apple TV. So with a high-speed connection, you essentially have the most comprehensive online video library available on your TV. It navigates easily, you can even log in to Hulu to pull up your playlists and recently viewed list. 

We spent some serious time watching TV shows like 30 Rock and The Simpsons on it the other night. Because it doesn’t boot like a computer or require a keyboard, it was more convenient than trying to hook up one of the family’s laptops to the TV, something we do from time to time but not often because of the hassle of getting a powercord, dealing with screen savers, etc.

That all assumes you can deal with the hacking part. It was potentially painful, although it worked well for me. But most people don’t want to do that. Part of my purpose in going to the trouble is to goad Apple into providing this kind of content by itself. Yes, the Boxee solution is great — and Boxee is likely aiming to get its player loaded onto many different devices which I would look forward to — but from Apple’s perspective, isn’t it time they considered an ad-supported model? I know advertising has been a no-go for Apple, but when you see how much behavior it drives at Hulu and even TV.com, it makes you understand the future for Apple TV lies in a combination of ad-supported and paid content. If not from Apple directly, then through an App store, like the iPhone has.  

Let’s continue the conversation we started on the value of the Apple TV. Apple TV fans and foes alike, do you think ad-supported streams make the device better or is it already good enough? Are you playing with Boxee either on the Apple TV or off it? If so, what do you think?


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)


Netflix streams through TiVo

October 30, 2008

I recently called Netflix the little engine that could, with its announcement that its streaming content would be available through select Samsung Blu-ray players. 

Well, that little engine made it even further up the hill this week, adding TiVo as a streaming partner, as reported in the NY Times today. The score is now officially Netflix 5, everyone else 1. Meaning that Netflix has 5 different ways to get content into your home. That blows everybody else away.

I spoke earlier this week with Jim Keyes, Blockbuster CEO, on stage at the Forrester Consumer Forum. He made the case that Blockbuster didn’t want to marry itself to one device as iTunes does with the Apple TV. Instead, he wants Blockbuster to be available through any disc device (DVD or Blu-ray) and eventually any digital platform. But he didn’t see the digital platforms ready yet (despite buying MovieLink). And I buy that argument for the most part, but when you see what Netflix is accomplishing, it appears to be single-handedly fueling the market for digital platforms, one streaming partner at a time.