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.


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 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.


Over-the-top Set Top Box shootout teleconference

September 30, 2008

In less than an hour, I’ll be leading a Forrester teleconference to talk about the results of our over-the-top set top box shootout. We evaluated TiVo HD, Apple TV, HP MediaSmart Connect, VUDU, Netflix/Roku, and the unusual ZvBox. Clients can access the teleconference archive to see it after the fact. Or you can read the report the teleconference is based on. 

We had to pick a point in time to evaluate set tops that were available, though we know a few new ones are coming out soon, including the SlingCatcher, expect to hear more from me on that as it gets released. 

The cool thing about this teleconference and report is that we built a new model for evaluating any new technology product where you add up the consumer benefits the box provides (content, convenience, community, etc.) and then subtract the barriers that stand in the way of its adoption (like price, complexity, lack of a brand, etc.). It gives you a way to score a product against other products in its category, as well as in adjacent categories.

The bottom line is this: these set top boxes are all competing to win a distant second prize behind DVRs which are now getting close to 30% of all US households. Meanwhile, the PC is rising as a way to do much of what these set tops do, but in a more flexible (albeit complex to install and manage) way. In other words, this market will have to work hard to prove that it even is a market.