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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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.


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?


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.