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?


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.


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.


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.


On the rising problem of “disappearing content” from online video sites

December 11, 2008

Gotta give some props to Greg Sandoval (pictured at left) at CNET News who did a great piece this week on the seemingly random removal of content from Netflix and iTunes. (see TV has license to kill movies at iTunes, Netflix | Digital Media – CNET News).

If you’ve been reading my posts lately, you know that “disappearing content” is par for the course. One of my most read posts in the history of this blog is my piece on Why CBS Pulled The Mentalist From CBS.com. I also briefly covered how Sony Pictures apparently pulled certain of its films from Netflix only when viewed through the Xbox 360 (you can still watch them elsewhere). 

I know it’s easy to start throwing snowballs at these guys for not understanding the power of the online channel. I have a few of those snowballs in my arsenal as well. But I have to confess, I consider these stops and starts a good sign.

What? That’s right, this is a good sign. Because if the corporate heavies had their way, none of these movies or TV shows would be available on Netflix, iTunes, CBS.com, the Xbox 360 (you get the picture) in the first place. The fact that they threw too much up there, then realized they didn’t quite have full permission to do so and have had to retrench is a sign that they’re experimenting. Importantly, the fact that they only pulled a few and didn’t just rip the whole thing down is also a good sign. Remember, danger lurks in darkness of media executives’ souls. They’d rather not do the right thing. But the dynamics of the market are forcing them to. Huzzah for us. 

Let them have their fits and starts, let them figure it out as they go along, as long as they keep moving forward.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to weigh in.