Monthly Archives: April 2012
Spring 2012 — Interesting Stuff in Cable Tech Roundup
by Leslie Ellis // April 30 2012
Spring is a good time to pull up, look around, and regroup around the boatload of interesting stuff that’s happening in cable tech circles. In no particular order, here’s my list, culled from various batches of notes:
1. Fiber shortage? Hard to imagine, given the fiber glut left in the wake of the cratered CLEC business. But that was a few years ago. This is now, and fiber is selling like hotcakes, according to the head of one of the larger glass-makers.
What’s going on? Cell backhaul, broadband stimulus funding, and rural power companies building out to “densities” as few as four homes per mile. As a result, glass makers are on allocation. Translation: A 90 to 120 day wait from the time you say “purchase order” to the time you get those fiber reels. Go figure!
2. VOD DAI: Remember this one? It’s all about digital ad insertion (that’s the DAI) into stored, on-demand video content (that’s the VOD.) Agencies still snark on it – “nobody wants mid-roll ads” – but a vibrant vendor community disagrees.
What’s going on? Think back to the earliest days of VOD, when cable providers essentially strong-armed the content community into giving them VOD titles for free. Now, with DAI as a way to monetize VOD content, on the fly, from the edge of the network, without having to re-pitch assets, that tune is changing.
Here’s evidence, from a recent batch of notes on the subject: “MSOs are saying, ‘give us your good stuff, we can’t monetize your dogs.’” Which isn’t a very nice thing to say about dogs, but nonetheless, anything that realistically points to monetization usually gets funding.
3. Apple, you whippersnapper! Some content providers are raising both eyebrows at Apple, and any other content aggregators seeking “native frame rate” material, as opposed to the impressively nerdy “mixed cadence.”
What’s going on? This is all kinda-sorta like the inverse-telecine activities of the analog days. Remember? Film gets shot at 24 frames per second (fps), and television at 30 fps. That created a need to do things like telecine and inverse telecine (pronounced “tele-sinny”) to make film play on TV, and vice versa.
Except that neither TV nor movies get shot on film anymore. Digital reigns eternal! The new way of talking about such matters involves “native frame rate,” meaning, send “mezzanine” (highest-grade) content as files captured and transmitted as is.
The rub is that some networks use the “mixed cadence” technique, meaning the smooshing together of the two different frame rates. This tends to happen when capturing in one format and editing in another, or when mixing in graphics. Not visible to the human eye; easier to do on their end.
Now, though, Apple and others are requesting an end to this 50+ year reality in TV and film production — away from mixed cadence, and toward native frame. Which to the old-timers feels kind of like the grandkid telling the grandparents what to do….
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Why I Won’t Rent Movies from Google Anytime Soon
Last week, YouTube expanded its movie rental library with the addition of about 500 new release titles from Paramount, followed by another 600 films from MGM this week.
What’s that you say? You didn’t know that YouTube runs a movie rental library?
This actually isn’t new. YouTube started offering rentals over a year ago. But the service hasn’t drawn a lot of attention. Maybe it’s a lack of content; maybe it’s because Google isn’t exactly promoting it (aside from adding a small link that says “movies” to the top of the page, where it doesn’t exactly jump out.)
But now that Google signed Paramount and MGM for rentals, things could get more interesting. Or so I thought.
Turns out that “interesting” is about the nicest thing I can say about my experience trying out the service. (Queue beginning of rant please.)
For starters, the experience is very different depending on which device you’re using. Relatively speaking, a web browser on a computer provides the best experience and the widest variety of content.
If you’re viewing on a computer, you can access free movies from Sony’s Crackle service in addition to the rental content available through YouTube. Crackle allows you to watch hundreds of ad-supported movies and TV shows for free, and is also available via apps for Android, iOS, Roku and a whole host of other devices (but not Google TV, in case you were wondering. I’ll delve into that later.)
But YouTube only allows you to access Crackle content through a computer, other devices don’t carry the same access. That said, some of the same titles are available for rental, if you’d like to pay $2.99 for something you can watch for free through another app.
And as far as connected devices go, it’s a mess. YouTube movie rentals don’t exist, as far as iOS and Google TV are concerned – these devices have YouTube apps, but you won’t find any rental content there. The Google TV issue is especially perplexing, because you used to be able to rent and watch YouTube movies through a Google TV, back when YouTube didn’t have any content. But as of January 1st of this year, that’s no longer the case. Behold, from Google’s YouTube support page:
However, if you have a Google TV there IS a way you can watch the free Crackle content that’s available through YouTube Movies. All you have to do is switch to a generic user agent in Chrome, and access YouTube through the web browser (but this will not allow you to watch rental titles, unfortunately, and it won’t get you over the Hulu hurdle either). It’s a simple process, if you have the patience to fiddle around in the browser settings for a while.
Here’s how you do it: Open the Chrome browser, then press the Options button (the one that looks like a bunch of lines, on the bottom of the D-pad on the right side of the controller.) Then, go to Settings, followed by Advanced Settings. Under Advanced Settings, scroll down using the buttons on the left and then use the twitchy mouse button on the right to navigate to User Agent and select “Generic User Agent.”
Then you’ll notice that there’s no place to confirm the settings. The “OK” button at the bottom of the page is only for adding a custom user agent. You’ll need to hit the Back button repeatedly to get back to the home screen. It may seem like you’re deleting your settings, but your changes will save. Don’t worry, I checked.
Now you should be able to go to YouTube using the browser on your Google TV and view the free titles from Crackle. Or, you could just go to the Crackle website since you can’t view any of YouTube’s rental content anyway. Simple, right?
If you have an Android phone or tablet, you can rent movies but you won’t see the free content from Crackle (you’ll find that all in the Crackle app.) Also, there’s this:
So on your computer, you can rent movies through YouTube. But on your Android mobile device, you rent those same movies through the Google Play app, not the YouTube app.
Are you confused yet? Because then you have to open ANOTHER app, “Play Movies,” in order to view movies you’ve rented. Fortunately, the Google Play and Play Movies apps are pretty well integrated, but it still feels way too complicated.
There’s still not a lot of content on YouTube/Play Movies compared to Amazon and iTunes, both of which offer movie rentals and work with multiple devices. And you don’t have the option to buy titles at this point, either. As far as pricing goes, YouTube rentals are available from $1.99 and up; most titles are $2.99 for SD and $3.99 for HD (where available — most titles I looked at were SD only), and the rental period is 48 hours. Most titles give you a 30-day window to begin watching the movie, but this is not the case for the handful of titles that are on YouTube Movies before they hit theaters (you’ve only got 48 hours to watch those.)
And with that I give you the one thing that makes YouTube stand out from its competitors: YouTube also offers rental access to a few titles before they’re released in theatres, or while they’re still in theaters, with a price tag between $6.99 and $9.99. For example, you can currently rent the movie “Hit So Hard” while it’s still in theaters, or the movie “Goon” before it’s in theaters, for $6.99 ($7.99 if you want HD.) This is a big deal, since most cable providers and streaming services have a hard enough time getting new releases at the same time they’re released on DVD.
Inconsistent user experience aside, my main problem with the service is the amount of information you have to cough up in order to actually rent a movie through Google Play. You can’t just put in your address and credit card info — you have to sign up for a Google Wallet account, which requires that you use your phone number for verification.
While I’m well aware that Google probably has all of my info already, I’m the kind of girl who puts a bogus phone number in when making small online purchases, and 99.5% of the time it’s not actually used for bank verification.
So it bothers me that Google does verification via phone and not email, because I don’t want to give them my actual phone number (though again, I realize my Android phone is probably sending them a lot more than that anyway. I noticed it conveniently filed some cat videos from my phone into my Play Movies app. But I digress.)
I’ve avoided linking my phone number to my Gmail address, even though I’m pestered to do so every time I log in to my account. I only purchase apps for my phone through the Amazon Appstore, because I don’t want to sign up for Google Wallet and voluntarily give them the info that they probably already have. It’s a matter of principle.
I’d venture to guess I’m not the only person who feels this way about giving all their information to Google. And since they require your actual phone number in order to complete a transaction, that means quite a few people who will be renting their movies through Amazon and iTunes instead of Google Play.
Somebody Please Bring HD Voice to the U.S.
by Leslie Ellis // April 17 2012
Writing about something you have to hear to believe is as vexing, if not more, than writing about what you have to see to believe.
But even that comparison is a start.
Let’s assume that we all lived through the first days of HDTV. (Mine was at the Atlantic City Convention Center, on the boardwalk, in the early ‘90s. The booth was draped in black cloth, to keep the viewing area dark enough.)
If you’re like me, your first reaction to HDTV was something like this: Wow. That’s better than my eyes can see.(And at the time, I had 20/10 vision.)
The same is true — and then some — for HD voice. It’s better than your ears can hear, even if you didn’t spend too many cumulative hours in front of the Marshall stacks at this-or-that concert. It sounds like the difference between any airline’s complimentary earbuds, and Bose-grade earphones.
Trust me: You want this. It’s that good.
Why so good? The lingo of HD voice is a little bit bandwidth (“wideband” plays here), and a little bit codec (a tech sniglet for “coder/decoder;” the big one is G.722.)
Bandwidth plus codec equals better audio resolution — just like it did for video resolution, in HDTV.
How much bandwidth? Not much, in relative terms: 7 kilohertz (kHz) for HD audio – compared to 3 MHz or more for one stream of HD video. (Refresher: To get to a “mega” from a “kilo,” add three zeroes.) But in voice terms, it’s nearly a doubling: Your phone today likely uses about 4 kHz for your conversations.
Physiologically, by spectrally stretching into higher and lower frequencies, the human ear can hear more. Going spectrally higher (to 7 kHz, from 4 kHz today) makes consonants sound clearer; dipping lower in the band (down to around 50 Hz, from 300 Hz on today’s phones) adds depth and clarity.
All of this brings to mind one of comedian StevenWright’s classic observations: “I got a walkie-talkie. It doesn’t work.”
The good news is, with HD voice, even if only one phone is tricked out with an HD codec, call quality still improves. But the technology really sings with dual-codecs — one in your phone and one in mine. No more “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” No more “say again?”
Six years ago, HD voice launched in parts of Europe, and especially France. Here in Colorado, the summer concert season is about to start (read: more potential hearing loss.) Hint, hint…
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Dear UltraViolet: You Have Front-Office Issues
For the past couple years, we’ve heard a lot about UltraViolet – an initiative brought about by the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), a consortium of movie studios, electronics manufacturers and retailers.
In short, UltraViolet allows you to access a digital copy of a DVD or Blu-ray disc you’ve just bought. The motto is “Buy Once, Play Anywhere,” and the idea is to make it as easy to purchase and play a title electronically, as it is to pop a DVD into any DVD player, no matter where you are.
Ultimately, of course, it’s a money thing. Studios understandably want viewers to continue to purchase their titles, but as physical media transitions to digital media, it’s gotten difficult, because of all the fragmentation in playback.
Meanwhile, Netflix and other rental/streaming options continue to flourish.
UltraViolet-enabled DVDs and Blu-ray discs come with a code that allows the owner to access the same video from the cloud (of whichever retailer was the point of sale), and on multiple devices.
Unlike iTunes Digital Copy, which handles both the Digital Rights Management (DRM) and the content, UltraViolet is a “digital locker” – that is, it handles the DRM but doesn’t actually store the content.
Currently, there are about 100 titles available though UltraViolet, with 5 of the 6 major movie studios on board, plus independent studio Lionsgate (though not all make movies available through the service yet). Disney, the only big studio not on board, is taking a “wait and see” approach, according to CEO Bob Iger.
In addition to being packaged in with new release titles, UltraViolet now allows consumers to buy access to digital copies of the discs they already own. Earlier this month, for instance, Walmart began offering an UltraViolet Disc to Digital service, meaning customers can bring in their DVDs or Blu-ray discs to a store, and purchase rights to stream and download those titles, through Walmart’s Vudu service.
It’s not clear how many titles are available at launch, but it’ll cost at least $2 to get a digital copy of the same resolution, and $5 to go from DVD to an HD version.
Samsung is also adding Disc to Digital support to its Smart Blu-ray players this year, through the Flixster app. This means owners will be able to pop an eligible DVD or Blu-ray disc into the player and register ownership, after which they can access an UltraViolet copy for a “nominal fee.”
Depending on the studio, the digital copy may be streaming-only or available for download. And here lies the catch: UltraViolet only guarantees streaming and/or download rights “for at least one year after purchase.”
While that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be cut off after a year, it does mean that you should probably download your UV movies sooner rather than later. And in the case of the studios that don’t actually allow you to download your movies, you may have to pay extra for streaming access to the titles you own after a year is up.
I signed up for UltraViolet through the Flixster app on my iPad, enticed by a promotion for a free movie download of my choice.
Flixster is part of Warner Brothers, and is currently the closest thing to a unified UltraViolet interface (though only half of the studios backing UltraViolet allow their content to be accessed through Flixster.)
Once I signed up for both Flixster and UltraViolet using Facebook, I checked out the free movie selection and tried to view more information on one of the titles.
Alas. Somehow, in seeking more info, I accidentally locked it in as my final selection with a single tap. Fortunately, just as I was getting frustrated, Flixster announced that I was getting a bonus free movie on top of the one I’d just accidentally selected. And then it deposited a link to stream or download “He’s Just Not That Into You” into my library. (Ummm … thank you?)
I did ultimately manage to successfully download a movie to my iPad through the Flixster app, but when I went back to the app a couple days later, I got a pop-up notification that I hadn’t confirmed my email address, and needed to log in to the UltraViolet site on a computer before I could access my collection. Iy-yi-yi.
Alas, again: The Facebook credentials I used to sign up through Flixster weren’t recognized by UltraViolet. As a result, I’ve been locked out of my UltraViolet account for the last two weeks. I’ve been assured that the UltraViolet team is “reviewing my issue and will respond as quickly as possible,” but in the meantime this means I’ve got a full-length movie taking up space on my iPad, and I’m unable to access or even delete it. Naturally, my solution to this problem is to just delete the Flixster app altogether.
As I see it, the problem with UltraViolet is this: in trying to unify a fragmented marketplace in a hurry, they have given users an extremely fragmented front-office experience. While some studios give us a choice of different sources for their video, such as iTunes, Amazon and Vudu, others only work with Flixster or proprietary apps.
And for those of us who don’t already own a lot of physical media (and don’t have kids who want to watch the same title over and over and over – I’m told this happens 😉 — there’s not really any incentive to shell out for an UltraViolet copy. That said, although some studios are beginning to offer UltraViolet-only titles, you’ll pay a lot more for those than the same content on iTunes or Amazon.
DECE says that in the next few months it will make the UltraViolet service more consistent, with enhancements such as a Common File Format — so a single downloaded file will work on multiple devices. This is a start, but I don’t really see UltraViolet taking off unless they quickly ramp up the number of titles available and make them all available through a unified app.
Inside the Comcast RDK, Part 2
by Leslie Ellis // April 09 2012
This week’s translation steps farther into the parts of the Comcast “RDK” (reference development kit), the software effort aimed at shaving a year off the time it takes to launch new cable gateways, hybrid set-tops, and all-IP hardware and services.
Quick refresher: RDK is a bundle of software drivers and source code that gets pre-loaded into chips, so manufacturers can develop product more quickly. Which means apps, services and everything related goes more quickly. Quickly is the goal of RDK.
In essence, the RDK outlines a “now and next” list of software items, where “now” means what’s in today’s digital set-tops: A CableLabs “Reference Implementation” (RI) for OCAP and tru2way, a Java Virtual Machine (JVM), a video proxy, media streamer, and DTCP (Digital Transmission Copy Protection), for security.
The “next” parts of the RDK come from the IP (Internet Protocol) side of the world.
Recall that a huge driver for the RDK is to tap into the larger world of Internet developers, instead of building complicated, cable-specific stuff.
For brevity, we’ll sidestep the familiar, “how things are now” components, which this column has covered every which way over the past decade.
Let’s look instead at the new stuff: Gstreamer, QT, and webkit. Starting with “QT,” which people tend to say as a word: Cute. (No really.) QT is a “windowing framework,” meaning it’s the traffic cop for everything that wants to get onto a screen.
And because nearly everything in software happens in stacks, the next one up in RDK is “webkit,” a browsing framework used under the hood of Safari, Chrome, and mobile environments like iOS (Apple) and Android (Google.)
Including a browsing framework, notably, isn’t the equivalent of Internet browsing on TV. Rather, a browser framework knows how to do things like render HTML, parse incoming markup languages, and access specific media types – so that a browser, as we know it, could work on top of it.
Then there’s Gstreamer — and here comes that “framework” again, this time for video. It’s what’s underneath the processing or raw audio and video files, so that they play out as intended. Handily, it’s a framework that plugs into multiple types of digital rights management (DRM).
In the olden days of right now, most of these activities are done on proprietary silicon that works differently, one chip vendor to the next. RDK exists to change that.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
A Deeper Dive on Set-tops and Power Consumption
by Leslie Ellis // April 02 2012
Nothing like a TED quote to launch a deeper dive into recent news around energy-efficient set-top boxes.
It’s from Donald Sadoway, a Professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT, and it goes like this: “If we’re going to get this country out of its current energy situation, we can’t just conserve our way out. We can’t just drill our way out. We can’t bomb our way out. We’re going to do it the old-fashioned, American way. We’re going to invent our way out, working together.”
Ok, Donald. Like it. Very tech-patriotic.
Here’s the issue, when it comes to set-top boxes and energy consumption: Invention is underway to introduce light and deep sleep modes for new set-top boxes, which is great. I’d go so far as totally great. But, there exists a big (double-digit millions) backlog of deployed set-tops that went into homes long before technology options existed to lower energy consumption per device.
That means it’s a big numbers issue, say the engine room technologists focused on reducing power usage in CPE: A few watt hours per set-top box, times millions of them, is a big number.
Let’s look at some numbers. Here in my lab, the cable set-top draws 32 watts when on, 30 watts when off. An absolute worst-case scenario is the old-style HD-DVR, drawing 47 watts, 24 hours a day.
That older box can consume 1,128 watts per day, of which an estimated 282 watts involves the power associated with actually watching TV (assuming six hours/day of viewing.) The remaining 846 watts is used to receive guide data, authorizations, firmware updates, and other “back office” activities.
Contrast that with current model DVRs, drawing in the range of 28 watts, in service, and 22 watts when turned off – which cuts overall power consumption to 564 watts/day. That’s half the power consumption. Translation: On/off modes can make a very big difference.
From a dollars and cents perspective, let’s say power costs 12 cents per kilowatt hour (your mileage may vary.) That means the new, sleep-mode box burns about six cents per day, or, just under $25/year. (Double it for older boxes.)
So why not just ditch all those power-hungry deployed boxes, and flash cut to the new, power-mode beauties?Sorry. It’s just not an option. Too expensive! Just as only some small, very-eco subset of us is motivated to replace the existing HDTV set with one that saves $70/year in power, so it is that no video service provider – cable, satellite or telco – is financially equipped to trash millions of deployed boxes.
Which brings us back to inventing our way out of the CPE power-draw issue. All together now!
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.