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.

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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.


Samsung adds Yahoo Widgets to its TVs

January 6, 2009

In yet another Pre-CES announcement — eerily similar to the one I blogged about yesterday when LG pre-announced that it was putting Netflix into some of its HDTVs — Samsung late yesterday announced it was putting the Yahoo Widget Channel into some of its 2009 HDTVs. Rather than online video delivery like LG announced, this channel will be an interactive ticker that will provide layers of information (read: traffic, weather, shopping) as well as opportunities to augment TV shows with application widgets.  

Let’s see: Internet content, easily delivered to the TV. TiVo, Roku, SlingCatcher, LG, Boxee, now Yahoo and Samsung. I sense a trend here, no?

In fact, I spent some time taping CES interviews with CNBC that will roll out over the week. Like every other press outlet, they wanted to know what I expected the big trends to be this year. I had to confess that the big trends are mostly going to be the same trends that we saw at last year’s CES. Only this year, they would matter.

That’s not to say that Sony and HP’s Net-connected TVs weren’t important trailblazers on the path to the future, they were. Even Verizon FiOS, which has been playing with TV widgets for two years now, was a critical first explorer of this new territory. But their wagons have bogged down in the mud and LG and Samsung are building a nice little interstate behind them. 

The big difference between these announcements from LG and Samsung and prior efforts is that the 2009 solutions are based on open content that already has an audience. Netflix has 9 million subscribers who want that content. Yahoo provides toolbars and web experiences to millions of people each day. Plus, both solutions will gradually be augmented by adding more open content experiences such that the TV is worth one thing the day you buy it, and more later down the road when the additional content and widgets are added.

It’s the culmination of many things I’ve been writing about, so obviously I’m excited about it. However, a sober note is always in order. I’m not suggesting Samsung will sell a million of these. Even between LG and Samsung, they won’t sell a million this year. TVs just don’t sell that fast. But learning from these examples, everyone else who makes TVs will work out similar solutions (dare I ask once again for a Hulu TV?). And Blu-ray and even DVD makers will do the same. 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. 

Specific to TVs, my public prediction from 2008 was that in 2013, 40% of all TVs sold that year will have Net connectivity. After that period, the number will rise rapidly, not even because all people will want that, but because — like the digital camera in your cell phone — TV makers will find it easier to include Net connectivity than to exclude it.

Stay tuned for more CES announcements throughout this week. I am on CES-lite this year, only spending two days there, but will have ample opportunity to spot the best and brightest in the world of video.


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.


As Netflix rises, Roku drafts nicely behind

November 3, 2008

Every time I turn around, it seems Netflix is announcing something new. These past few weeks my little fingers have typed furiously to keep up with Netflix, which I will now refer as the company formerly known as the DVD-by-mail company. Two weeks ago, I wrote about Samsung adding Netflix to some of its Blu-ray players. Then there was the announcement that Netflix had finally enabled streaming on the Mac (okay, okay, Intel-based Macs, but still). Then there was the revelation that said company would provide HD streaming on the Xbox 360 and other devices. Finally, I posted just last Thursday that Netflix was partnering with TiVo to expand its streaming to yet another device. (Convenience note: you can mouseover these links to see the text of the page without actually clicking on them)

Just remembering typing it all inflames my carpal tunnel. Now that I’ve had some time to think this through, I’m still impressed with Netflix. But wait a minute. In all this, there’s one definite winner behind all the announcements: Roku.

btw, this is not an ad, this is just the most attractive picture I found on the website: I don't get paid anything if you click on this and order

Yes, I’m talking about the maker of the $99 streaming video box that in my back-of-the-envelope estimations has probably sold more than 50,000 units in the six months since its launch. This is the box that I proclaimed the winner in the over-the-top set-top-box shootout I wrote in July. But secretly, after writing that report, I started to fear for the box’s survival in a world where Netflix is off enabling every other device you’re thinking of buying this holiday season.

Then the recession hit. Follow my logic here: you hear that Microsoft Xbox 360 Live members can stream Netflix to their TV sets. That sounds cool enough to try, you are one of nearly 9 million Netflix subscribers aftera ll, but then you add up the additional costs — $199 for the low-end Xbox 360 Arcade plus a $7.99 a month subscription. Add that up for a year and you have $295. (Of course, the plan from Microsoft is that you already own an Xbox and this motivates you to sign up for the Xbox 360 Live Gold Membership, but just humor me.)

So you then hear that select Blu-ray players from Samsung and LG now allow for Netflix streaming. You were considering a Blu-ray player anyway, so you look into these and find they retail for $349 to $399. Then you hear that TiVo will offer Netflix, but you have to get the $299 TiVo HD at a minimum, not to mention the monthly service charges. You’re starting to feel daunted, so you go to Netflix.com and see all these options on one page so you can figure out which one is best for you.

You find the Netflix Ready Devices page, which shows you all of these options, and what do you see? Roku listed at the top, at a nice $99 price. Oh, and by the way, it’s the only one that comes with built-in wireless connectivity for those who don’t have ethernet in the living room. Especially in a recession, the Roku seems like a low-risk option.

I shared this line of logic with Tim Twerdahl, VP of Consumer Products at Roku, an ex-Netflix guy on Friday. I could practically hear the smile on his face over the phone as he agreed with my logic. Then he confirmed it: “Our sales are up dramatically in October.” And that in a recession.

Of course, the point of all the other boxes is that they do other things, not just Netflix. The Xbox does games, TiVo does DVR, the other guys do Blu-ray. When I shared this concern with Tim, he responded very confidently that I should stay tuned. What I have long been calling the Netflix/Roku box will soon shrug off the Netflix moniker by adding other premium content. This will only drive up sales on this box even more. Soon it will outsell the Roku Soundbridge home audio device that never really got past 100,000 users in four years of selling. There’s a business in this box; Roku is here to stay.


Netflix finally includes Macs in its streaming plans

October 27, 2008

The word at MacWorld is that the Netflix “instant watching” feature is being upgraded to support Firefox as well as Intel-based Macs. This is something the Netflix blog brought up early on as a goal. The Intel-based part means it’s not exactly Mac-friendly, but Netflix says that three-fourths of their Mac users are based on Intel machines so they’re satisfying the biggest number.

Many Mac people will be angry about this, to be sure. Netflix doesn’t seem to be apologizing, though, and is instead likely to position this as yet another in a log line of devices Netflix intends to support: LG Blu-ray players, Samsung Blu-ray players, the Roku/Netflix box, the Xbox 360, and now, the Mac.

Angry Mac fans aside, this is further evidence that the Netflix people know what they’re doing.

Device by device, Netflix is making its modest little service relatively ubiquitous. Unlike iTunes or MovieLink or anyone else, Netflix is shooting to become the base option in video devices intended for the living room. Very smart move.


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.