Silverlight’s Twilight, and the Dawn of HTML5 Video
Netflix announced last month that it is finally moving towards its goal of ditching the Silverlight plugin, with a little help from Microsoft.
Background: Netflix currently uses Silverlight (a Microsoft product) plugin to deliver streaming video to most web browsers. Netflix announced their intent to move away from Silverlight in favor of HTML5 in a blog post back in April, after Microsoft listed only 8 more years on Silverlight’s lifecycle.
And that wasn’t the only reason: Not all browsers support plugins, particularly on mobile devices. And even on supported devices, some consumers view plugins as a security risk and avoid installing them.
So for the past couple years, Netflix has been involved with three W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) initiatives, collectively known as the “HTML5 Premium Video Extensions.” The general goal is to develop specifications that will make it possible to play premium video directly in a web browser, without the need for consumers to download proprietary plugins such as Silverlight or Flash.
The W3C initiatives involve three key areas: Playback and Adaptive Streaming, Digital Rights Management (DRM), and Encryption.
Meanwhile, the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) initiative covers DRM implementation by providing standardized support for various DRM systems. (Notably, Leslie adds, the DRM-protected HTML5 stream is an area where multichannel video providers, steeped in how to satisfy contractual agreements with the program networks they offer, consistently grumble about monkey wrenches.)
One of the main hurdles for Netflix is getting these Premium Video Extensions implemented on all browsers – Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer. And this is where we’re finally starting to see some progress.
Back in April, with Google’s help, the Premium Video Extensions were implemented for the first time on the Samsung ARM-Based Chromebook. This isn’t a complete implementation; WebCrypto hasn’t yet been implemented in Chrome so a Netflix-developed API handles those operations for now. But once Google’s WebCrypto implementation is complete, testing can begin for Chrome on Windows and OS X.
Notably, and to the “with a little help from Microsoft” in the title of this post, Internet Explorer 11 is the first to implement all three of the Premium Video Extensions. If you’re running the preview of Windows 8.1, you can now watch Netflix using HTML5. If not, or if you prefer Firefox or Safari, you’ve still got some waiting to do. But if the current uptick is any indication, maybe it won’t be long.
Regardless, HTML5 is a hot topic and a big, big deal across the video ecosystem. Netflix’s moves are noteworthy, but not an isolated achievement by any stretch.
An Update on Redbox Instant
A few months ago, I reviewed the latest streaming service to hit the lab, Redbox Instant by Verizon. Back then it was still in the beta test phase, and the experience (and lack of content) made that all too clear.
But the beta tests are over, and Redbox Instant launched publicly on June 3rd. So how is it doing now?
Devices and Playback:
Redbox Instant originally worked only on mobile phones, tablets, and computers, with an Xbox 360 app added during the beta phase. In early June, GoogleTV devices (2nd-generation and later; the Intel-based devices don’t work) got a Redbox app too. What’s more, we’re told we’ll have an app on Roku before the summer’s over.
I tried out the GoogleTV app (which doesn’t automatically appear with the latest update — you have to search for it in the Play Store) and I liked the interface well enough, but the app crashed a couple times during playback. Though to its credit, the app did remember where it left off and was able to resume when it crashed.
Of course, with any new app glitches will be discovered and resolved, so this kind of thing is somewhat expected. You may recall that I experienced a few playback issues with the iPad app for Redbox Instant, back when I tested it during the beta phase. Those issues have cleared up and the Redbox app now performs as well as any other video service on my slow connection. We’re expecting the same from the GoogleTV app, and the Roku app when it eventually launches (don’t disappoint us now, Redbox.)
I also found that the resolution was noticably lower on Redbox than when I streamed the same title on the same device through Netflix — while Netflix and Hulu Plus have some titles at 1080p, Redbox and Amazon Prime top off at 720p. This was especially pronounced on my slow DSL connection at the farm, so I think the way each service handles adaptive streaming plays a role as well (in our experience Netflix seems to be particularly good at this.)
Redbox Instant’s web interface
Last time, I complained about the fact that Redbox Instant has very little subscription streaming content, and that most of what’s available isn’t exclusive – so if you have Netflix or Amazon Prime, there’s not much on Redbox that’ll be new to you. That’s still largely the case, though we have seen Redbox’s streaming catalog expand to about 8,000 titles since the beta launch (for comparison, Amazon Prime has about 33,000 titles in its unlimited streaming catalog.)
The latest streaming content from Redbox (on Google TV)
The catalog is still movies only, no TV, and it still combines titles that you can see for free with your subscription with those that you have to pay extra and/or drive to a kiosk to pick up. While they offer the flexibility of unlimited streaming and per-transaction titles, and you can do things from the app like reserve titles at a kiosk, it all starts to feel a bit cluttered. There are filters for each content source – kiosk, rental, and subscription – but I occasionally found myself accidentally browsing everything of just the unlimited streaming content. It’s hard enough to choose something to watch, without deciding on a title and then realizing you have to drive to a kiosk or pay extra to watch it.
Browsing titles to rent or buy on Google TV
What’s next for Redbox Instant?
Like virtually every other streaming video service, Redbox Instant plans to create some original content in the future. According to CEO Shawn Strickland, the primary focus will be family-oriented programming, a genre he claims is lacking in other services. (We’re not so sure – Amazon has three new original childrens’ series planned, and just scored a deal with Viacom to pick up a bunch of Nickelodeon programming. Not to mention Netflix’s exclusive deal with Disney.)
But if you listen to Redbox tell it, they don’t want or need to compete with Netflix and the other services – disc rentals are an important part of their plan, as that allows their customers to get new releases from a kiosk before they’re available to stream. Their plan is to focus on disc rentals and then upsell streaming packages to those customers who are already heavy users of Redbox kiosks. So they’re betting that there’s still enough life in physical media to carry them through.
Us, we’re not so sure. But we’ll be watching to see how this all shakes out.
NextGuide: The Next Generation of TV Guides
Have you ever spent 30 minutes combing through multiple streaming video apps, trying to decide on something to watch? Me too. And apparently, we’re not alone.
At OTT-con, we heard a lot about this particular challenge from Jeremy Toeman, CEO of Dijit. He called it the “Chinese restaurant menu effect,” where we have so much to choose from that it becomes a burden. Dijit aims to solve this with NextGuide, an overhaul of the traditional TV guide that combines live and on-demand content into a single place.
NextGuide started as an iPad app, and released a web browser version last month. The browser version is still in beta (you can sign up if you’re registered on the iPad app) and it appears there are still a few things to be ironed out, but in general both apps work well.
NextGuide has much in common with other video discovery appslike Fanhattan (which just announced a new device) and Matcha (which just shut down its app, but claims to have something new in the works.) It hooks into many of the same content sources: Netflix, Hulu Plus, iTunes, Amazon, and live TV. (No HBO Go though.)
Like the earlier discovery apps, NextGuide lets you browse a bunch of sources in one place. When you pick something, it automatically launches an app (or website, in the case of the browser version) and starts playing the content. This worked solidly on both the iPad and web versions for me, and with none of the Netflix playback issues we noticed with Fanhattan.
Dijit’s recommendations go a step further than any other app or service I’ve yet seen. They work on an episodic level – meaning, you get recommendations for a specific episodes rather than the whole show.
Here’s how it works: You set customized categories based on your interests, location, favorite actors, and so on. Then Dijit combs through all the content it can see to identify episodes that might be of particular interest to you.
The iPad app has a section called “Your Picks” that highlights the top recommendations for you, but I was only interested in about 10% of the titles it gave me. To be fair, I didn’t give it a lot to work with: Dijit takes into account shows that you’ve “liked” on both Facebook and NextGuide, and uses these to fine-tune recommendations. It also lets you edit the “My Picks” section to veto things you don’t want to see.
The content is organized into a bunch of different categories, like “Denver” or “Sports,” which you can customize and browse through by selecting the icon at the top of the page or swiping right and left. You can choose the sources of content, and even select favorite channels in your live TV lineup.
But one thing that is notably missing is a separation between Amazon Prime and On-Demand content — it’s all combined, and my recommendations list fills up with a bunch of titles that I have to pay extra to see. One more button on the content filters would do a lot to help this experience.
On the iPad app, content is organized in a series of screens that you can flip through by swiping or tapping the icons at the top. It defaults to a section called “Your Picks” that combines all of your recommendations, and if you want to see content related to a particular interest or genre you just head to that section.
It also includes some other features beyond the typical content discovery mix. Last month, it added USA Network’s “USA Sync” technology, which uses ACR (Automatic Content Recognition) to recognize the content playing on your TV and bring up polls, trivia, and cast information on your iPad.
This feature only works with a few USA shows that this point, and only when they’re playing live – when I tried to test it at home with Burn Notice via Slingbox, the short delay (~10 seconds) was enough to make this feature not work on either NextGuide or the USA app. This would be so much more useful if it behaved more like Yahoo’s IntoNow app, which recognizes content whether it’s live, timeshifted, or on-demand.
NextGuide also includes a social layer that allows you to connect with Facebook friends and other users with similar tastes (this came from Miso, which Dijit acquired back in February.)
There were a few things specific to the iPad app that bothered me, after quite a few hours of using it. Like that it’s far too easy to accidentally switch categories while trying to scroll down. And the iPad app defaults to displaying 12 hours worth of content, so at first glance it was a jumble of shows with daytime television alongside 11 p.m. listings.
Fortunately, Dijit included a very intuitive way to change the date and time range for listings, I just didn’t notice it right away:
The browser version, released May 20, is a bit different in terms of functionality. Like the iPad app, the web version kicks you over to Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon and starts playing your video automatically. But this version also lets you schedule DVR recordings (if you’re a Comcast or DirecTV subscriber, that is.)
NextGuide’s web interface
There are some discrepancies between the two interfaces – the website doesn’t display a “Your Picks” section, only favorites from the entire user base. And it allows you to add things to a “Watchlist,” but this same list is called “Bookmarks” on the iPad app. The web version is still in beta, so we’re guessing these inconsistencies will be ironed out before the official launch.
Final assessment: NextGuide is an app on a bit of a learning curve, with some minor inconsistencies that should be worked out – but it shows a lot of promise.
However: We’re still waiting to see one of these discovery apps make the jump to the big screen. Somebody tell me: How long until I can use my iPad to cue up content on my Roku? And will we see a NextGuide app popping up on some of our devices in the lab – or a white label version of if? I hope so, but only time will tell.
Review: Asus Cube and Netgear NeoTV Prime
We recently added a couple of the latest Google TV devices to the lab: The ASUS Cube, and the Netgear NeoTV Prime. The lab is now overrun with Google TV devices; we have an entire bench dedicated to them, and their remote controls take up half the windowsill.
In general, the newer Google TV devices aren’t much better than the 1st generation models – they have a few new features, such as voice control, but that doesn’t even work on all of the latest devices. Case in point: The NeoTV Prime, which has no microphone on the remote despite being released around the same time as the voice update.
NeoTV Prime: Not worth the space
I’m not doing a full review of the NeoTV Prime, because it’s basically just a repeat of the other Google TV devices. It does have a few added bonuses, i.e. persistent static on the display and a new, uniquely frustrating remote control. Sadly, due to its lack of a microphone, it came out of the gate obsolete, and with a $130 $99 price tag.
Asus Cube: Better than the average Google TV
The Asus Cube ($140) comes with 50GB of free cloud storage through the Asus WebStorage service. It also changed the spelling of its name, from Qube to Cube. I wonder why they did this – perhaps there was concern it might be confused with another TV device?
The Cube also includes a microphone on the remote, and the voice control actually works. Finally, as promised, we can ask our Google TV “Show me how to tie a bow tie!” and it will pull up a video.
In fact, it cued up a whole playlist of YouTube videos about tying bow ties. Including this gem, starring a guy who looks like a cross between Freddie Mercury and Michael Scott from The Office:
But I digress. Although the voice control isn’t perfect, it does make it easy to get to certain content, and I might actually use it once in a while – as long as there are no other people within earshot. You see, the Asus Cube gets very confused when someone in the next room thinks you’re talking to them and answers back.
The ASUS Cube differentiates itself from the other Google TV devices with a custom UI, displaying apps across a 2-D Cube that flips as you scroll down through different categories.
I have mixed feelings on this. There’s a lot of wasted space, but it does help bring some order to the chaos that is Google TV. And it lets you customize what appears in each category, so you can bring the apps you actually use to the forefront.
The Cube itself looks like a distant, stodgy cousin to the Boxee Box. It has a taller profile than the other Google TV boxes, so it’ll be harder to tuck away into an entertainment center.
The remote control is a few buttons lighter than previous versions, weighing in at 87 buttons. But two of those are dedicated to voice recognition, which seems a bit excessive.
The Cube’s remote also includes a button on the side to toggle between using the touchpad as a mouse, and as a 4-way directional button. I found this more of a hindrance than a help, as it’s easily hit by accident and takes several seconds to turn the cursor on/off, but other reviewers raved about it. So there you go.
Integration with Cable and other devices
Like all Google TV devices, the Cube can bring in a digital cable signal. Our Comcast signal in the lab came through fine, but we hit a dead end with the IR blaster setup (Sidebar: Anyone happen to have the Command Set for a Motorola DCT-3412 handy? Leave it in the comments!)
Like many of the newer Google TV devices, the Cube also has CEC (Consumer Electronics Capable) over HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface), which allows you to control the TV volume and power using the Cube remote – this is one super useful feature that isn’t found on many of our other streaming players.
Motion Control, Gaming, and Apps
Like the other Google TV devices 2nd generation and later, the Cube includes 3-axis motion control in the remote – and like the others, it doesn’t actually make use of that technology yet. It has a whole section for “Games,” yet that only links out to a bunch of websites – so at the moment, this is the experience on the ASUS Cube:
There is one preloaded gaming app that isn’t a web page. At least, there will be soon:
I eventually called ASUS to ask how they recommend testing out the motion control. The bewildered support rep finally got in touch with somebody who could tell me the title of a game that worked – sort of. It wasn’t optimized for the Cube and therefore not available through the Play Store. I had to side load it, meaning I downloaded the .apk file from the web and installed it manually (in order to do this, you need to poke around in the settings and check a box giving permission to install outside apps.) And because it was designed for a mobile phone, the graphics were terrible and quite a few things didn’t work – i.e. no multitouch, so I couldn’t select a level.
The Cube includes an app called Whiteboard, which allows you to view and write notes on the TV screen but apparently not much else. Personally, I’m a big fan of Evernote, so I was happy to see it come up when I searched the Play Store on the Cube. Until I installed it and…
This brings me back to a long standing pet peeve about Android, which is only getting worse: Depending on your device, you can’t see every app in the Play Store, even though some of those may actually work with your hardware. The tradeoff is that in theory, every app you can download through the Play Store should work – but we’re seeing a lot slipping through the cracks, and the net effect is that there are very few apps on Google TV, and not all of those work.
And this is the sad state of Google TV today. We’re now on the 3rd generation, and virtually all of the initial problems persist. The content is limited, the apps are limited, and too many of those preloaded “apps” are just websites that aren’t even optimized for TV.
That said, the hardware seems solid enough and the ASUS Cube is the best of the Google TV devices we’ve tried so far. But you’ll want to take that with a few grains of salt. Here, let me pass you the shaker.
An iPhone and an Incubator
Sometimes I don’t fully understand the usefulness of things right away. Ustream, for instance. When I first heard of it, I imagined nothing beyond webcam “concerts” and talk shows filmed from somebody’s living room. (Party on, Garth.)
But now I’ve tried it, and I say Ustream is for the birds. Literally. (Never mind the other obvious use cases, such as following police scanner feeds in Boston this week.)
I live on a farm, as you may already know if you’re a regular reader of this blog. Usually, that only comes into play here when I’m explaining how I became a cord-cutter or whining about my slow DSL connection. But now, even my chickens are getting involved.
I’ve been keeping a small flock of chickens since I moved to the farm, but this year I’m hatching in an incubator for the first time, with eggs due April 26th. And in trying to learn as much as I could about the process, I found myself actually using YouTube on the AppleTV for once.
But I really made the connection when I saw a mention of a live hatch on Ustream. I tuned in, first on my iPad and then a Boxee Box, and that night I watched a stranger’s chicks hatch across the country.
As it turns out, Ustream is great for this sort of thing: a camera trained on something interesting, preferably involving baby animals.
So, naturally, I had to try it myself.
After debating various combinations of cameras, computers, and encoding options, I chose the easiest possible setup:
An old iPhone, with a paperclip kickstand.
Not surprisingly, I’ve run into a few glitches with my slow connection (~2 Mbps upstream) and have to take the camera offline whenever I want to upload photos or do anything that requires a lot of bandwidth. I didn’t honestly expect it to work at all, so I’m pretty impressed with the video quality.
My chicks will be hatching on or about April 26th. Starting today, you can find the hatch cam on my new food and photo blog The Homegrown Gourmet. (If I’m not uploading anything, that is.)
Are We There Yet? (some predictions on the future of streaming video)
Last month, I flew out to the Silicon Valley to attend OTTCON and report the highlights back to Leslie. It was a whirlwind of information, opinions, and sales pitches, converging on one point: In terms of streaming media, and content discovery, we’re just getting started.
To this point, a number of speakers used the phrase “cable TV in the 1970s” to describe where we are on the current trajectory. As in, 40 years ago, cable networks were just starting to produce exclusive content, and the technology was in its infancy.
So where will streaming video end up in another 40 years? We can’t even begin to imagine. But we’re starting to get a pretty good idea of some of the hurdles we’ll need to deal with along the way.
One topic that came up repeatedly, and one that I agree with wholeheartedly, is the need for better methods of browsing and discovery. With the ever-increasing amount of streaming content out there, how do you find what’s relevant to you?
The image-based guides that are the norm for OTT services today are certainly a visual improvement over the traditional grid guide, because we can recognize content we want to watch by its cover art instead of reading every single title. But there’s the problem of multiple apps, with content spread out all over the place. Not to mention, the customization is lacking and recommendations are hit-or-miss.
That last point speaks to a difficult problem, because even a solid recommendation isn’t necessarily what a person wants to watch in that moment. In practice, this means I end up with Netflix always recommending the same handful of TV shows and movies that have been in my queue for 3 years, but I still haven’t watched.
One of the keynote speakers, Jeremy Toeman of Dijit, made a particularly good point when he said that recommendations should be on an episodic level, using the show Bizarre Foods as an example: You may not want to watch every episode of that series (I know I don’t) but you might be more likely to check out an episode featuring your hometown, or a place you’re about to visit.
As expected a major topic of discussion at OTTCON was original content. One of the panelists asked how many in the room watched the entire 13-episode run of House of Cards, and a full 1/3 of the hands in the room shot up. But the conversation really focused more on content from “non-traditional” providers than the likes of Netflix and Hulu.
For example, look to the live stream with the most viewership to date: Red Bull’s Stratos space jump, with over 8 million live viewers (myself included.) Other panel predictions for future video providers included car companies, and GoPro.
Which brings me to another trend: Highly personalized content. Many small channels, focusing on very specific interests or geographic areas. Say, beekeeping. Or raising chickens. Or mountain biking in Colorado.
Naturally, this level of personalization presents a huge challenge in terms of organizing all that content. And there’s still the problem of “content silos” – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, all those apps have content, but there’s no way to browse it all together except with 3rd-party iPad apps. And all of those still pale in comparison to the guide/remote control app that works with our Comcast set-top box.
The majority of viewers have watched TV with an iPad or other connected device in hand (and several speakers pointed this out.) But it’s hard to measure whether a connected device serves as an extension of the TV experience, or a distraction — are they using a companion app or are they just checking their email?
Personally, I find it’s usually the latter — though I do sometimes use mine to browse for content before playing it on another device. And I must point out that using an image-based guide on the iPad is a huge improvement over the guide technology of my youth:
And while we’re seeing better content aggregation on mobile devices, browsing it all on the TV screen leaves a lot to be desired. Some of the streaming devices in our lab are making strides, but still have a long way to go.
Here’s the good news: If there’s one message from OTTCON that came through loud and clear, it’s that everybody agrees we’re going to get there. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight.
On Talking to Myself: GoogleTV’s new voice control feature arrives on the Sony NSZ-GS7
Well, it finally happened. After months of waiting, our Sony Google TV “buddy box” (or the NSZ-GS7, as we like to call it around here…not really…) finally got its upgrade to the new software version. After the Vizio Co-Star’s update started rolling out, I might add.
To refresh your memory, this update is only for GoogleTV devices 2011 and later — our 1st-generation Sony TV and Blu-ray player won’t ever get the voice control features in this software version. And this latest update isn’t a massive overhaul of the user interface (which is probably what GoogleTV really needs.) Here we’ll highlight three of the changes:
- What was the “TV&Movies” app is now called “PrimeTime.” (Whew. Good thing for that. ??)
- Now, you can send YouTube videos from your Android phone or tablet to the big screen.
- And, probably the biggest new thing in the update: You can tell GoogleTV what to do, although, this depends on your system and setup.
So, post-update, on your GoogleTV, you’ll be able to open web pages, change the live TV channel, and search for a movie just by speaking a few words into your remote control. Sounds great, right?
Here’s how it really works:
In our lab tests, the voice control features are hit or miss, depending on hardware. When GoogleTV project manager Rishi Chandra demonstrates the feature on an LG device in the video embedded here, it works pretty well and actually seems to be something I might use.
Well. We weren’t able to replicate Rishi’s experience with our Sony NSZ-GS7.
For starters, and unlike LG’s Magic Remote, the remote control that comes with the Sony streamer doesn’t come with a microphone. As we learned at CES, that’s “coming” from Sony.
Until then, even though we have the GoogleTV update on our “buddy box,” we wait. (It kind of reminds me of the old Steven Wright line: “I got a walkie-talkie. It doesn’t work.”)
Smart Phone App Option
All is not lost. Turns out the voice control and search features are also available on your iOS or Android smart phone, which gave us a way to run a few simple tests.
Alas. That didn’t work out so well either! Both mobile apps had trouble connecting to our GoogleTV devices, particularly the Sony NSZ-GS7 (which is the only one in the lab to get the voice control update so far.)
On the rare occasions that the app actually did connect to our GoogleTV, we had trouble getting its voice control features to work. While the “Search” feature worked fine, and did a decent job of recognizing speech, we couldn’t get anything to register as a “Command” as shown in Google’s demonstration.
Worse, when trying to issue a voice command such as “Open Netflix” or “Open Facebook,” there was zero feedback on the mobile app to indicate that it did or didn’t go through.
Google says that GoogleTV all about “reducing friction” and making it easier for people to get to the content they want. But as it is now, when used through the mobile app, Google’s voice control just adds another layer of frustration to a user experience that is already too complex.
So, it doesn’t look like we’ll be having a conversation with GoogleTV anytime soon. Connection issues are always a turnoff. Voice control, the main attraction of the update, didn’t work. For us, this update goes into the dustbin that is “most people won’t try that hard.”
We’ll give this another go just as soon as we get that new Sony remote with the built-in microphone.
Still in Beta: Redbox Instant by Verizon
Last month we got our beta access code for Redbox Instant, the long-awaited streaming venture from Verizon and Coinstar.
Redbox offers 3 different pricing tiers: $6 for streaming only, $8 for streaming + 4 DVD rentals per month, and $9 for streaming + 4 Blu-ray rentals per month. And like Amazon, Redbox Instant allows you to rent or purchase digital movies also – but you can’t apply your rental credits for digital rentals. That’s $5 extra, on top of the monthly fee.
Redbox Instant is available on iOS and Xbox360, plus web browser. There aren’t apps for Android, or for any other streaming devices yet, but Redbox says more are coming soon.
If the rollout of access codes is any indication, we may be waiting a while for the Redbox app on more devices (but perhaps we’ll get some free DVD rentals out of it?) See marketing item we received, below. No beta, but have a free DVD…
Redbox also leveraged the long Beta access rollout to gain some new Facebook and Twitter followers:
And naturally, this strategy resulted in a flood of posts from their new followers on Facebook and Twitter, most of them some variation on this:
But now that we’re coded and “in,” we’re kind of yawning. Why: Redbox Instant is way behind its competitors, in terms of content. Fewer titles by far, and most of the well-known content in Redbox’s subscription catalog is already up on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or both. Just take a look at today’s “Featured” list:
Also: Redbox Instant is all movies, no episodic TV – a major drawback in my opinion. If you’re not going to do TV, you’d better at least do movies better than the other guy. And unfortunately, Redbox doesn’t.
The streaming performance leaves a bit to be desired as well. When using the Redbox app on my iPad at the farm, I noticed that it didn’t fare nearly as well on my slow (<5 Mbps) connection as the Netflix app does – the video frequently ran out of buffer. But that can be fixed – as you may remember, the Amazon Instant Video app for iPad had some issues in its early days too.
Let us say this in Redbox’s favor: They’re for-real interested in hearing from we Beta testers about how to improve the service. In addition to engaging followers on Facebook and Twitter, Redbox Instant is using “gamification” to get feedback from its beta testers via the Redhead Nation website.
How it works: Testers earn points for providing feedback on the service, answering polls, trivia questions, and the like. Every 500 points buys a chance to win a prize chosen at random – anything from a “Redhead Nation Air Freshener” (what would that even smell like? UPDATE: they sent me one; it smells like popcorn) to an Xbox360. Here are some potential Redbox prizes…
I’m not a betting person, but I’d guess they’ve got a lot of air fresheners and only one Xbox in the hopper.
Not so shocking conclusion: So far, Redbox Instant leaves a lot to be desired – namely, more content on more devices. Even though the $6/month we’re paying for streaming-only access is a bit cheaper than either Netflix ($8/month) or Amazon Prime ($8/month or $79/year,) those still feel like a better value.
Netflix killer it’s not, but if they listen to their beta testers and seriously ramp up the content and device selection, maybe Redbox Instant can at least play in the same league.
(UPDATE: Redbox Instant is now doing a public beta test, so new subscribers can sign up.)
Content Wars: Spring 2013
Spring is on the way, and new content deals and original shows are popping up everywhere we look. Here are a few of the highlights:
Amazon struck a deal to expand their content agreement with CBS, which adds several more series, including the Showtime series “United States of Tara,” to the Amazon Prime catalog. The deal also includes in-season access to Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” on CBS this summer, with episodes scheduled to hit Amazon Prime 4 days after air.
This means Amazon is shifting its Prime model to include current season streaming, similar to Hulu. Amazon already offers unlimited streaming to its $79/year Prime members; its “Instant Video” service lets one rent or buy a title without a subscription.
It’s worth noting that Hulu hasn’t yet carried current CBS content in its catalog — only the old shows. We’re guessing this has something to do with the fact that Hulu is owned by NBC Universal Television Group, Fox Broadcasting Company, and Disney-ABC Television Group. As in not CBS. Ya think?
In an even bigger blow to competitors Hulu and Netflix, Amazon secured exclusive streaming rights to the hit BBC show Downton Abbey. While the first two seasons of the show are currently available on all three services, Amazon will be the sole streaming provider of season 3, starting in mid-June. Amazon also secured exclusive streaming rights to the third and fourth and fifth seasons (assuming the show persists, and we can’t imagine it not.)
Notably, Comcast secured exclusive cable-VOD streaming rights to all three seasons of Downton Abbey, and purchased rights to stream first two seasons of the show on its Xfinity Streampix service.
Watch for some original programming coming from Amazon, too – like the comedy “Alpha House,” the musical comedy “Browsers,” and “The Onion Presents: The News” — a comedy set behind the scenes of the Onion News Network. Amazon plans to film a total of six different pilots, then allow customers to decide which should go on to a full series.
Meanwhile, Netflix premiered its second original series, the political drama “House of Cards,” on February 1st. It beat out both AMC and HBO for the rights to this show, an adaptation of a BBC miniseries, back in 2011.
The entire 13-episode first season of House of Cards hit the Netflix queue at once, which created a massive buzz, in TV circles, and is a huge departure from the way episodic TV has ever worked.
Detractors say the show will suffer from the lack of the water cooler buzz that tends to accompany a weekly airing – but on the flip side, people can start watching from the beginning if they hear their friends raving about it after the 5th episode (as someone who got hooked on “Mad Men” two years after the fact, I can relate.)
Netflix has several other original series on deck as well: Eli Roth’s “Hemlock Grove” is coming in April; the revival of the Fox comedy “Arrested Development” in May; and comedic drama “Orange is the New Black,” from “Weeds” director Jenji Kohan, later this year. Netflix also purchased the exclusive rights to air the new series “Derek” (from Ricky Gervais, creator of “The Office”) after its run on channel 4 in the UK – no word on the Netflix release date for that one.
And then there’s the original children’s programming: In December, Netflix plans to launch “Turbo F.A.S.T”, based on the upcoming DreamWorks movie “Turbo.” Based on the indomitable influence of toddlers over Netflix queues (“let’s watch it again!”), it might be just the thing to cement Netflix as a monthly staple in homes with little couch potatoes (or “fingerlings,” as I like to call them.)
Hulu will also premiere several new original shows in 2013 – including the animated series “The Awesomes” from SNL’s Seth Meyers and Michael Shoemaker. They’re also unveiling another collaboration with the BBC, “The Wrong Man,” plus a new docu-series about sports mascots called “Behind the Mask.”
There’s no telling which of these shows, if any, will be a smash hit. One thing is clear: the fragmentation in the OTT content world continues. With OTT distributors releasing original content, it might only take one hit show (or children’s series for that matter) to rocket one of these service providers right up to “essential” status alongside the pay TV bill in household budgets.
But what happens then? Most people today are using OTT services in addition to, and not instead of, the cable/telco/satellite cord. As more original content is created, will we eventually reach a point where some popular shows are spread out across all the subscription OTT services, as well as basic or premium networks, like AMC or Showtime? And if that’s the case, will people be willing to sign up for several different streaming services on top of their payTV subscription?
Or, maybe we’ll see payTV operators begin to pick up original content from the likes of Netflix and Amazon instead (as we saw with Hulu in Canada this past summer.) There’s only one bet I’ll make with any confidence: it’s going to be an interesting year of watching TV.
Boxee+: New software for an old favorite
The Boxee Box is a favorite in the lab — its quirky shape never fails to grab the attention of visitors, but the real beauty of the Boxee Box is that it handles virtually every file type we throw at it. Plus, it organizes (DRM-free) video from your networks and USB hard drives with thumbnails and metadata it pulls from the web.
Alas, Boxee discontinued the Boxee Box this fall, making it “televestigial” – joining the ranks of the many devices in the lab that were discontinued or replaced by new hardware. So we’re part lab, part OTT museum at this point.
Boxee is instead focusing all its resources on Boxee TV, a device centered around linear TV which has some of the same features as the Boxee Box, but in a much plainer package.
The Original Boxee Box
The New Boxee TV
We’ll give a detailed review of Boxee TV in a separate post, but suffice it to say that while it is a fine device that’s less expensive and more accessible to non-techies, we’re still sad to see the Boxee Box relegated to the dust pile.
Fortunately, Boxee supports the use of 3rd-party app repositories (meaning that you can install outside apps on the Boxee Box), and some hackers figured out how to get the Boxee Box to run custom code from a USB drive. So even though Boxee is no longer supporting the Boxee Box, developers can still write new software for it. And naturally, there are plenty of developers/hackers to be found in the community of Boxee enthusiasts. In fact, there is already a new project called Boxee+, which I installed on one of our two boxes last week.
Boxee+ aims to add new and improved features to the Boxee Box, including custom fan art for TV & Movies, plus a Music section on the Home screen which pulls music files from your home network (this was actually part of the old Boxee Box UI, but it disappeared in an early update.)
Boxee+ also boasts faster HD streaming and a faster UI (more on that in a bit), plus some changes under the hood including telnet root access (for the non-geeks in the audience, root access is basically like a back door into the kitchen –- you can get in there and mess around with low-level stuff, such as running custom apps and even completely replacing the operating system, depending on the device.) Boxee+ also includes FTP access, so you can add remote file shares.
And like the original Boxee Box software, and XMBC before it, Boxee+ is open source — so developers can take the existing code and modify it for other projects (this is known as “forking” – for example, Boxee is a fork of the open-source entertainment hub XMBC.)
How does one go about installing Boxee+ on a Boxee Box?
From the usability standpoint, installing Boxee+ is pretty simple. However, know going in that installing Boxee+ will most definitely void your warranty, and there’s always a chance it will brick your Boxee Box, so it’s not for the faint of heart. Visit the Boxee+ website for the step-by-step instructions, and then read on for a few helpful hints from yours truly.
To install Boxee+, you just have to download a file, unzip it, copy the contents to a USB drive, and then enter a few strings of text on the Boxee Box. It should take about 5 minutes, unless you happen to have two Boxee Boxes in the same room.
As I was typing in the string of text, suddenly the Boxee Box seemed to have a mind of its own. It would alternate between not responding to signals from the remote control and getting stuck on them, so when trying to type “Boxee” I would get “Boooooooooooo” and then I’d backspace through about half of the extra letters before that key got stuck and deleted the entire string of text I was trying to type. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Helpful hint: if your Boxee Box ever starts doing this, hold the remote control up against the LED on the front of the box and hold the center (“OK”) button for about 15 seconds to pair the remote.
Since I’d just completed the first step of the Boxee+ install, I initially assumed that was the source of the problem. Then I realized the remote control still had the original battery from 2010, so I tried that first (which involved going to buy batteries, because it takes those CR-2032 disc batteries.) When a new battery didn’t change anything, I turned my attention back to the Boxee+ install.
At this point, I switched over to my un-hacked Boxee Box to double check the original settings — and found that box was exhibiting the same behavior. Either there was some Boxee virus going around, or something was going awry with the remote control pairing. A quick Internet search later, the boxes were behaving normally again and I was back to work on the Boxee+ install.
So to install Boxee+ you download a file, unzip it, and copy the contents onto a USB stick (Note: just copy the contents of the folder, not the folder itself.) Then you plug the USB stick into your Boxee Box and go into ‘Settings’->’Network’->’Servers’ where you check a box and add a few characters to a string of text. That’s pretty much it.
When you navigate away from ‘Settings’, the Boxee logo on the front of the box turns red, indicating that it’s installing the software. When it’s done, the box restarts and you just need to make sure the box you checked before is still checked. Then you’re done (and you don’t need the USB key anymore.)
So how does it work?
Boxee+ claims to bring faster HD streaming and a faster UI, but to be honest I didn’t really notice a difference in speed when I compared video of our standard Boxee Box vs. the box running Boxee+. To my eyes, the user experience was nearly identical between the two (the notable difference being the Music section added to Boxee+.)
So is it worth your while to install Boxee+ now? For a casual Boxee user, the subtle changes to the user experience probably aren’t worth the risk of a bricked device. But for those of us with geeky tendencies, the changes under the hood have a lot of potential. And better to try it while there are still Boxee Boxes to be found on clearance, right?