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?


Roku’s next steps: Hulu, then Yahoo TV Widgets

February 12, 2009

If you read this blog often, you know I’ve been road-testing a lot of set top boxes for the past two years. I do this because I cover video, but also because it’s a disruptive moment in the history of the video and if there’s lessons to be learned about disruptive innovation, this market provides ample opportunity to be tutored. (All props to Clay Christensen at HBS, by the way, for defining the way we all look at disruptive innovation. That’s worthy of a separate post at a later date.)

After spending significant time with the Roku box during some recent sick days, I have concluded that the Roku is still the box that delivers the most punch, especially considering its price. That’s why the Roku box won our Convenience Quotient analysis on set tops last summer and it’s only getting better as the Roku team adds more content. 

The Roku is the only box that I want more than one of — one for the living room and one for the family room.

But it still has a long row to hoe if it’s going to end up in a million homes. In particular, I see a threat in the form of connected TVs. I’m writing a piece for Forrester on that topic right now, should be out in a few weeks, but the conclusion is pretty optimistic: thanks to supply-side energy, the Yahoo TV Widget space is making it likely that connected TVs will be in more than a million homes by year-end, possibly two million.  

So here’s my prescription for Roku to stay in this game. I haven’t discussed these things with the team there, but I’ll make them a matter of public record so that if I’m right or wrong, at least I’ve been bold.

1 – Get going on Hulu. This might mean starting with CBS (which is dramatically more open to radical syndication moves, as evidenced by the YouTube relationship) or Viacom, as a way to show Hulu that this is the way things are moving. The sooner ad-supported TV shows up on Roku, the sooner it’s a must-have $99 box for everyone.

2 – Become the first set-top box to implement Yahoo TV Widgets. I cannot get this widgets solution out of my mind. It’s such an elegant way to open the market to innovation and I like innovation. From what I’ve learned from the people in charge of the Yahoo TV Widgets strategy, the code to accomodate the widgets should be relatively simple to put on the moderately powered Roku box. But the beauty of having widgets on the Roku box is it would immediately relieve Roku of needing to strike separate content deals with every possible content provider. Instead, it can just let content providers develop whatever they want for the platform, making the box more valuable with each passing day. 

The fact is, every box, DVD player, TV, and game system (Wii Widgets?) will eventually implement Yahoo TV Widgets. (I know that’s music to Yahoo’s ears, but when you do the right thing strategically, it tends to work.) So Roku better hurry. 

Last thought: once these steps have been conquered, it’s time to start courting HBO and other pay TV providers to discuss delivering subscription-based content to the Roku. Not something HBO wants to do (not something Comcast wants it to do), but it’s where things are heading. And as long as HBO is priced higher on the Roku than it would be through Comcast, which is certainly what HBO would have to do, it might be feasible by 2010. 

What do you think?


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.


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.


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)


Joost’s iPhone App a Sign of Things to Come

December 11, 2008

A relatively silent shot was fired the  first week of December which, though it was not at first heard around the world, will eventually change the way all media are distributed. Sound provocative enough? 

I‘m talking about Joost rolling out its iPhone application. This changes everything.

You might think I’m going to on and on about how mobile video is eventually the future, blah, blah, blah, but I’m not. Because it’s not. Mobile video will be a very nice complement to the TV and the PC. It will remain the third screen for as long as you can imagine. This post is not about the future of mobile video.

Instead, I’m talking about what I have been calling the “many devices, many services” model of media consumption in many of the speeches I give. This model follows nicely in line after the “one device, one service” model, which is best embodied in the iPod/iTunes or Kindle/Amazon combinations. This is a fine model, usually one that a new technology category will start with. But that model is quickly followed by a “one device, many services” model. This is the case with the Sony eReader, which, unlike the Amazon Kindle, has published an open development platform which allows any bookseller in the world to sell books into the eReader ecosystem. One device + many services. 

Before we move into the “many devices, many services” model, a quick interim step called the “many devices, one service” model flourishes briefly. This is best exemplified by the Netflix on LG, Xbox, Samsung, TiVo, and so on model. I love this model and have written about it copiously.

But what we will see next is what Joost has done by exploiting the iPhone’s application development environment. It has volunteered itself as a service on the iPhone, without Apple ‘s express permission. In other words, in the “many devices, many services” model, devices are built with open platforms that allow any (ergo: many) services to spontaneously connect, without doing a biz-dev deal. 

Oily Britney Spearks, Star Trek, Victoria's Secret, any guesses what target audience Joost appeals to?

Top Joost Picks: Oily Britney Spearks, Star Trek, Victoria's Secret, any guesses what target audience Joost appeals to?

“Many devices, many services” is the future of video. And it requires the use of an open platform and open protocols. Joost, which got its start as a P2P video delivery mechanism, has since opened itself to wider consumption by going straight IP. Once it speaks IP, Joost can easily be ported to any IP device, including the iPhone. Including the T-Mobile G1. And so on. It has been so successful on the iPhone so far that it’s regularly in the top 10 free applications on the iPhone App Store (see pic, today it’s #5, yesterday #2, it see-saws).

All we need now is a (commercially-viable) open development platform for the TV set-top box. We already see a rabid community of Apple TV hackers who are writing their own code to create an open platform out of the walled garden Apple built. (I’ll write more on that later in the month because I’m trying it out myself.) And Comcast and Cox and Verizon will take years before they consider an open platform — they’d rather charge you for everything you want to do, even if they only enable you to do it badly, which is the case with things like whole-home DVR.

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.

In the meantime: Joost iPhone users. Are you using the app? Does it work as advertised? Satisfied? If not, this could slow down the proof of concent the “many devices, many services” model needs, so I hope not. Let me know.


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.