Archives For Media

While Comcast and Verizon have been the most vocal about connecting the TV experience with tablet devices, AT&T announced a new technology today that shows the U-verse operator isn’t letting the TV/Tablet trend pass it by. According to reporting from Engadget, the new tech uses Wi-Fi to connect mobile devices to AT&T set-tops. It supports DLNA and adds in authentication, a TV interface, and application context. And in a twist, the operator is opening up the technology to let developers create their own U-verse applications. AT&T’s sample application, ComplemenTV, gives you remote DVR scheduling on the iPad, and program guide info with connections to Amazon and Home Shopping Network for product purchases. Now this is interactive TV.

We learned last fall that Comcast had some new tricks planned for the Xfinity TV app, and an announcement this morning provides a bit more detail. (Business Insider SAI posted the news first.) Comcast will launch a new “play now” feature later this year for the iPad that gives access to “nearly 3,000 hours” of on-demand content. In addition, Comcast will add live streaming to the Xfinity TV app for in-home live TV watching on an iPad. Yes, we’re talking in-home only on the live streaming, but it still makes a nice place-shifting feature when you want to watch TV while cleaning the dishes or organizing your closets. Both the play now and live streaming functions will also reportedly be ported to Android tablets this year.

It’s interesting that Comcast has decided to make some noise during CES despite not having an official presence here. (No doubt there are plenty of back-room meetings taking place.) Part of the reason has to be the fact that Verizon is making a big splash at the show this year, though most of that will be on the wireless side rather than from the FiOS division. Another part of the reason is likely Comcast’s upcoming merger with NBCU. As The New York Times reported this morning, CES is turning into a can’t-miss event for media companies. All these new gadgets are great. But many of them are only as good as the content they provide.

Now that we own digital content in a lot of different places, several companies are working on the problem of making it accessible everywhere. Skifta, owned by Qualcomm, is one such player with a new Android app, and an affinity for DLNA. The Skifta set-up is reasonably simple. Download the app on your phone and install the software on your computer or NAS drive. Skifta will also work with the content already on your phone or stored in certain web-based media services. Choose your content source, your DLNA playback device (including many of Dave’s Boxes of the Year), and you can start streaming from your phone.

I spoke with Skifta exec Gary Brotman recently about what’s in store for the product, and why he thinks the application has potential. He said Skifta is signing up as many services as possible to enable media playback from more web-based apps, and that the company has a developer program in the works as well. DVRs would be a natural fit for Skifta, but (with the TiVo and Moxi exceptions) would require support from cable/telco providers. Brotman agreed and acknowledged that the company is continually looking for new and useful integration points. Brotman also noted that the Skifta model is an attractive one for content studios because it provides access to media without leaving any cached copies lying around. When you leave a location, your media leaves with you.

Unfortunately, Skifta currently only works with Android 2.2 and above, so my Eris leaves me out of luck for an app trial, but I hope to get an on-site demo at CES next week. Although I love the concept of Skifta, I have certain reservations about how well it can succeed. First, it’s competing against other better-known services like Orb, which also automatically transcodes media for customized playback. Second, the company has to have incredible luck to get the timing right for its product. Video is the killer app for Skifta since you can already plug in a music player virtually anywhere, and photos on a large-screen TV aren’t terrifically compelling. That said, getting good video quality from Skifta would require a great wireless connection, a compatible phone, and a DLNA playback device. And once enough people meet all of those requirements, there may be an easier way to access media either directly from the web or by side-loading content. Can Skifta get critical mass early enough? It’s hard to know. But I’m certainly in favor of this trend toward making my media accessible anywhere.

A major shift is taking place. The interwebs are now important enough for major content providers to start throwing their weight around online. Sure, they’ve been doing it to some extent over the last several years – networks keeping content off Hulu, broadcasters blocking video scrapers like RedLasso – but the studios are upping their game. The latest evidence is a report from Reuters that “senior executives at three of the big six television and movie studios” are looking to renegotiate their deals with Netflix. You know those 28-day DVD release windows before Netflix gets access to certain movies? The studios are looking at extending them further. And the money Netflix pays for digital rights to studio content? Increases are likely on the way. (Of course Netflix may be very willing to pay. There’s one report out that the streaming company would pay up to $100K per episode if it could get its hands on current TV line-ups.)

None of this is surprising. Just look at the retransmission wars taking place between TV networks and cable providers. As Netflix moves closer to that latter category, the company is going to start getting similar treatment. It’s just a distribution channel after all. And now that it’s a highly profitable one, the content companies are going to shorten their leashes.

There are other recent examples of networks putting pressure on digital distribution too. The limitations placed on the likes of Google TV and Boxee Box count as one example, but I also listened in at an industry event yesterday where it became clear that networks want to increase the ad loads for content online. Will Richmond of VideoNuze hosted the event with execs from MTV Networks, Comcast, and elsewhere, and one of the discussions centered on how much advertising consumers will tolerate online. The prevailing view seems to be that there’s still a lot of room for ad growth.

Don’t get me wrong – I do believe content producers and providers have a right to get paid for their work, and high-value content isn’t cheap to make. As a consumer, though, I can only sigh with resignation as I watch the online distribution channel evolve along the lines of traditional television, and hope that greed doesn’t push the pendulum too far.

If you can’t make it up to Ralph’s Cafe on the 43rd floor, the biggest attraction at the Comcast HQ building in Philly is the gargantuan video wall in the lobby. The content changes regularly, so while I was on site for a meeting yesterday, I snapped some pics of the moving scenery. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera out when I noticed what looked like a weather widget pop up on the wall. I only caught a glimpse, and not enough of a look to know if the information was live or canned. (It’s been cold, wet, and windy in Philadelphia, so graphical gray clouds wouldn’t have been amiss.) Luckily, I was ready a short while later when a similar-looking snapshot showing stock exchange data appeared on high. The Nikkei, the Hang Seng… all up-to-date financials? I ran a check of the numbers later on, and… it looks like old information.

The moral of the story here: just because it looks like a widget, doesn’t mean it is one. However, it occurs to me that piping live data to the Comcast video wall isn’t a bad next step. Weather, stocks, local parking availability, traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway. It wouldn’t be a bad way to show off cable’s convergence dream. And it might be easier than going 3D in the lobby. No glasses required.

TiVo, blah blah, TiVo, blah blah blah. Let’s move on to something important, like March Madness. ;)

With the best month in college basketball kicking into gear, I thought I’d take a look at my options for following all of the NCAA action. First up is the official March Madness On Demand Player from CBS Sports. The powers that be keep adding features to the MMOD player, and no wonder. CBS brings in tens of millions in revenue, and last year streamed roughly 6.5 million hours of March Madness video. New this year, CBS Sports is adding a picture-in-picture feature and real-time overlay stats. As before, you can choose between Silverlight and Flash players (Silverlight for higher quality video), listen to Westwood One radio broadcasts, and access game highlights and archives.

Speaking of archives, the NCAA has also launched its own site, the NCAA Vault, with a library of archived tournament games from the last decade. Need to get in the mood for a big game, or engage in a little trash talking? You can use the site to find clips of your favorite teams and players of yesteryear, and the Vault includes integration with Facebook and Twitter so you can post links to specific time codes and share your favorite blocks, dunks, and fast breaks. (Kudos to Thought Equity Motion, which powers the service.)

Of course if you’re in front of your TV at home, not only can you watch this year’s games live, but you can also see March Madness highlights via numerous VOD sources. Last year the major cable and telco providers got into the game with VOD offerings, and presumably this year will be no different.

Which brings us to mobile. CBS debuted a March Madness iPhone app last year for viewing live games. It only works over Wi-Fi, which has its drawbacks, but at least it’s something. So far, however, there doesn’t appear to be an Android complement. I’ve found a couple Android apps for tracking scores (NCAA Basketball Scoreboards, and the free College Basketball Live), and a company call Pure Concepts just launched a PocketBracket app for the iPhone (an updated version) and Android devices (new) today. Unfortunately, live Android streaming looks like a no-go. What, me worried? Nah, I’ll make do with my TV and netbook. Bring on the Madness!

20 Minutes with the Nook

Dave Zatz —  February 2, 2010

2010 is shaping up to be the year that media consumption tablets go mainstream. In fact, according to Amazon, the Kindle already has. Obviously, most of our current attention is focused on the iPad… and Macmillan jacking eBook prices by 50%. (Which is probably unsustainable, despite their hopes.) But a co-worker received a Nook ($259) for Christmas, and I asked her to bring it in so I could examine it outside the confines of a tradeshow floor or Barnes & Noble, proper.

First off, as you can clearly see, the Nook is far more physically attractive than the Kindle ($259). Beyond the 6″ E Ink display, it also quite cleverly integrates a color capacitive touchscreen to handle interaction. However, as many have noted (including our resident e-book expert) the initial software is way too slow. I can overlook the blinky E Ink page refreshes, but the boot times and tap-to-wait is a killer. Which makes me appreciate the simple competence of the Kindle even more. The hardware nav buttons on the Nook require more pressure than Kindle’s, and maybe more than I’d like. But it probably results in fewer inadvertent page turns. Of course, Barnes & Noble’s not-so-secret weapon is digital book lending… should the publishers universally (or mostly) get on board with it. But if/once they do, you can bet Amazon will likewise implement similar functionality.

Regardless, single function devices like the Kindle and Nook will need to come in lower given Apple’s aggressive iPad pricing.  (Better yet, follow in Audible’s footsteps to give away units in exchange for a book subscription plan.) And support richer, more complex content… As newspaper and periodical presentation and interaction could be greatly enhanced. If either of these guys drop to $199 and provide an RSS reader (say 10 subs on the house, without additional download fees) or introduce a $99 – $129 non-cellular model, I’d buy a pair. And a few as gifts. Otherwise, I’m staying on the sidelines until the path forward is a bit more clear.

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