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.


Blockbuster $99 set top box finally available

November 25, 2008

After a brief announcement a few weeks ago that was light on details, Blockbuster today announced it would sell what is calls the MediaPoint, a $99 video-on-demand set top box.

As you can see from the graphic, the slim box is made by 2Wire, a company that typically provides products and platforms like broadband home gateways to help TV service providers deliver media experiences to the home. 

The attractive pricing is required, of course, as the Netflix Player by Roku came in at $99 earlier this year and has made a splash, reaching what I estimate to be nearly 100,000 unit sales (not yet, but probably by year-end). 

Blockbuster is obligated to do the same. But they’ve gone one step further than Netflix in that you don’t actually buy the box.  You pre-pay 25 movie rentals and they give you the box for “free.” This counters the claim by any Netflix fans that the $99 box doesn’t come with free content like the Netflix box appears to. 

We spoke to Jim Keyes, CEO of Blockbuster back in October and he indicated the box wouldn’t be out in time for the holidays, but apparently he changed his mind. You would, too, if you had to endure announcement after announcement about how Netflix content was available through more and more devices, including PCs, Macs, LG Blu-ray players, Samsung Blu-ray players, the Xbox 360, TiVo, the Roku player, and eventually, your mother’s toenail clipper.

Some quick analysis: this is a good move, it is the right time, and the solution is deftly simple. In fact, I don’t know what would stop people from buying this box and placing it right next to the Neflix/Roku box. From one you get classic movies and TV shows, hours of fun for the whole family (including my kids who watch it nearly daily). From the other you get first-run titles, 25 of which you have pre-paid. Remember: if you wanted to rent 25 DVDs at Blockbuster, you would pay the same amount. This saves you the regular trips to the local store.

Some reporters are making a big deal out of how this competes with Blockbuster’s retail locations. I disagree. Anything that brings you closer to a brand is good news for that brand. It might change the way retail appeals to you — they might sell more products, including Blu-ray players and gaming systems — but it doesn’t mean the store goes away.

One last note: The one risk in Blockbuster’s approach is that it’s device-specific, whereas one of the geniuses of the Netflix strategy is that it’s multiplatform. Can BBuster do a deal with the Sony PS3? That device also has a hard drive, so maybe. But Blockbuster direct to the Net-connected TV would require a streaming model, which this isn’t. So some settling of business models is likely to occur as they contemplate streaming, portable video player integration, and adding HD content. All in all, this is a good move for Blockbuster, as long as it is just the first of many advances.


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.


Jim Keyes, Blockbuster CEO, taught me 5 things

October 28, 2008

I’ve been around the block a few times. By that I mean I have been to more than a handful of big conferences where CEOs talk about why their companies are the cat’s meow. And many times, these CEOs disappoint, falling into the role of simple cheerleader for their brands. We work hard to make sure Forrester Forums escape that pit, but it doesn’t always work.

That’s all in preamble to what I just heard from Jim Keyes, CEO of Blockbuster, who delivered. He took the stage for 45 minutes and told this audience the nitty gritty details of what it’s like to take a company many people have pronounced dead and transform it into a leader.

Jim sold me. Here are five important things I heard from Jim about the future of entertainment:

  1. One customer, many channels. Jim made a compelling case that Blockbuster is the company best positioned to have a true multi-channel entertainment offering: rental, purchase, kiosks, digital downloads, even a set top box strategy which he publicly acknolwedged but indicated would not happen this year. No competitor has the same opportunity to deliver through all possible channels to all possible devices.
  2. The over-the-top set top box business is not there yet. This is probably why Steve Jobs keeps publicly referring to the Apple TV as a “hobby.” While Jim acknowledged that Blockbuster will offer the same kind of product, when I asked him in Q&A to go in more detail, he said that these boxes are ahead of the customer right now and it doesn’t make sense to get one out there just to have one out there. He could subsidize, like he thinks Netflix is doing, but it didn’t make sense right now.
  3. Convenience is king. Putting aside for a moment that in the entertainment business, content is the real king, when it comes to the companies who want to deliver entertainment, convenient access to content is what matters. Jim discussed in great detail (including assumptions about pricing and consumer strategy that were alarmingly frank for a CEO speaking in public) about the business model implications and challenges they face in trying to make access to content convenient. Oh, and he used my Convenience Quotient model from earlier today, so of course I liked it :)
  4. Change is best when it comes from the top. One of the questions we get at every one of our events is, “how do I drive change in my organization to participate in this digital revolution?” Jim led his speech by saying he had a great opportunity if he could “inject change.” So I took the opportunity to ask him just how he planned to do that. His answer was as detailed as all his other comments, but the short of it is that he personally takes the responsibility to inject change, including communicating to every store manager each week. That way he can personally infect them with his own enthusiasm and ideas for the company’s future.
  5. You can’t get too far ahead of your headlights. Those were Jim’s words in response to me asking him the question about whether he’s actually innovating too fast by trialing kiosks and multi-channel experiences. He admitted he might be ahead of consumers just a bit, but was willing to experiment. As long as, he then confessed, that he didn’t get ahead of investors. I think that’s a lot of what is going here: Blockbuster isn’t just managing to customer’s expectations, but to Wall Street’s as well. From what I see, Jim is doing a good job of both. 

As you can see, I’m impressed by what I saw. Jim’s a guy who knows what he’s up to. If Blockbuster is going to turn itself around, I can’t imagine anyone more prepared to do it. More from the forum as it unfolds.


Samsung adds Netflix to latest Blu-ray players

October 23, 2008

We’re witnessing the one dramatic change in the world of physical media. Now Samsung has joined LG in making Blu-ray players that also stream Netflix movies and TV shows. This Netflix strategy is the little engine that could:

  • People first said it was weak because the content was so second-string. Netflix has recently fixed that by adding Starz and some Disney movies. 
  • Some complained that a dedicated $99 box from Roku (though priced to sell), wasn’t enough to move the market. However the LG Netflix/Blu-ray player showed that there was real depth to the strategy.
  • The deal with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 to put Netflix content in the game console proved there’s a true multi-platform play there.
  • Now Samsung’s entry shows that this is going to become a big deal across multiple players in the CE and computing world.

Lessee, Netflix 4, everybody else, 1.

With Steve Jobs again this week referring to the Apple TV as a “hobby” in order to downplay previous expectations, this leaves Netflix clearly in the driver’s seat when it comes to over-the-top delivery to the TV. Maybe not in volume yet, but it will.

The biggest issue here is what this means for cable. Netflix has set its sights not on Blockbuster or even on iTunes, but on Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner. The Netflix solution pulls content automatically from your DVD rental queue, provides an easier-to-use interface than VOD, and now has as much good content as a typical VOD system, this makes cable cord-cutting that much more possible.

This Netflix move could prove to be the most important wildcard of 2008. Now if only there wasn’t a recession hanging over these Blu-ray players

Are you Netflixing your TV? Will you? Do tell.


Blockbuster CEO coming to speak at Forrester Consumer Forum

October 20, 2008

Just sharing some residual excitement after speaking with Jim Keyes, the CEO of Blockbuster. We recently connected in preparation for Forrester’s Consumer Forum next week. Official forum kickoff is next Tuesday, October 28th, at 8:30am. This year’s forum is in Dallas, at the Gaylord Texan Resort — I’ve never been but I’m told it’s big, in true Texas style.  

 Jim is speaking before lunch on the opening day of the forum and we recently got together on the phone to talk about the event and his plans for what he’ll share with attendees.

Bottom line: Jim is psyched about a multichannel future. I won’t steal any of his thunder here, but suffice it to say, he understands that we are in a very early stage of a dramatic change in the way people consume media. 

And he wants Blockbuster to be in the middle of that. It’s an ambitious goal, but it’s also surprising that he has this as his goal at all. I remember talking to retail CEOs in the late 90s, most of whom didn’t understand that their industry was about to be completely revamped. They started dot-com divisions and then guarded their brick and mortar businesses against those dot-coms. It was not pretty.

Fast forward to now, a similar transformation is about to happen to the video industry. We see a lot of early attempts at innovation, from the over-the-top set top boxes to a cool tidbit recently announced by Time Warner in Hawaii where they’ll put Internet connectivity right into the cable company’s digital set top boxes. (By the way, I’m glad they did since I predicted in 2007 that such experimentation would happen by year-end 2008; we were getting close to the deadline there.) But in the end, everywhere access to video will require that single-channel solutions fade into oblivion. Multichannel is the answer, my friend. 

Anyway, I look forward to hearing Jim speak, I’ll be interviewing him on stage. If you’re there, say hello. If not, I’ll blog from the event so you can at least get the crumbs from the table…


RealDVD can’t be sold while judge weighs options

October 6, 2008

This is only going to get uglier. Read a very intelligent post on Ars Technica covering the legal issues. The studios are claiming that even though the letter of the law is not violated, the spirit of it is.

The big issue is whether or not people can rent DVDs at Blockbuster, then copy them to a hard drive in the home. James to Hollywood: why would this be bad?

Think of this way: the rental would have been paid for. Revenue in. The copy placed on the hard drive can’t be shared, emailed, or otherwise viewed except on those computers owned by the individual that also have RealDVD installed on them. The absolute worst case for the movie industry is that someone loads up a laptop with a bunch of movies they rented so they can watch them on the road over the next few weeks. Sounds like this actually increases rental transactions because it makes me get a few extra videos while I’m in the rental store because I know I’ll be able to watch them over the next few weeks.

Who gets hurt here? Remember, people who want to rip DVDs illegally already do so with great abandon. For the rest of us who simply want a convenient way to watch movies, telling us we have no legal options only makes the illegal ones more attractive.