Spring Streaming Update: 2015
As the first tulips of spring poke their way through the snow, we’re looking back at some of the recent developments in the world of OTT video. And despite a brief lull in the action, we’re once again seeing new services pop up, just as others vanish. So without further ado, here’s our Spring Streaming Update for 2015:
Shuttered Services: Samsung Video Hub, Redbox Instant, and Target Ticket
The shutdown started with Samsung, which closed down its Video Hub on August 1, 2014. Video Hub streamed only to Samsung smart TVs and mobile devices, and allowed users to purchase and rent movies and TV episodes.
A few months later, on October 7th, Redbox Instant closed its doors. The service, a joint venture between Verizon and Redbox (part of Outerwall), bundled unlimited streaming video with Blu-ray and DVD rentals from Redbox kiosks. But Redbox Instant failed to gain traction with customers, in part because it was slow to roll out to new devices and the streaming catalog looked an awful lot like Netflix, only with fewer titles.
Target Ticket soon followed suit, with the retailer announcing it will cut off the transactional streaming service on March 7th. Target’s service didn’t offer any unlimited streaming – like Walmart’s VUDU, it offered streaming titles to rent or buy only. But with the exception of parental guidance ratings from Common Sense Media, there wasn’t much to differentiate Target Ticket from its more established competitors.
For customers who purchased video from these services, you should still be able to access your content — but it may be a tricky process. Redbox Instant and Video Hub are making subscribers’ video purchases and credits available via M-GO, and Target Ticket will be sending its customers to CinemaNow (the streaming venture that Best Buy picked up back in 2010).
At best, customers will need to sign up with another service just to get access to the titles they already own. But different services often have different agreements with studios, so there are no guarantees that every title you purchased through a cancelled service will be available through its replacement.
The End for UltraViolet?
On a somewhat related note, we’ve been hearing rumblings for months now that the UltraViolet initiative may be winding down. When we wrote about UltraViolet nearly three years ago, the service – which acts as a “digital locker” to let you access copies of movies you purchase – had buy-in from all the major studios except Disney and MGM. Instead of joining UltraViolet, Disney introduced a competing service called Disney Movies Anywhere back in February 2014, and now UltraViolet’s studio partners are reportedly in talks about joining forces with Disney.
But at least as of last December, UltraViolet was optimistic, adding new studio partners and anticipating new growth as it expanded to more countries. It’ll be interesting to see how the spin shakes out on this one…
New OTT Streaming Service: Sling TV
And finally, lest you think this post is all about services closing their doors, we do have a new addition in the form of Sling TV – a new web TV service from Dish Network, which launched to the public February 9th. Back in 2012, Dish partnered with Sling Media, makers of the Slingbox, to bring out-of-home streaming to the set-top boxes known as “The Hopper.”
The new Sling TV service is delivered purely OTT, with live TV and VOD from a lineup of about 15 cable networks for $20/month (with more being added, including AMC last week). We’ve been testing out the new service and will be back shortly with an in-depth review. Stay tuned!
From OTT to IOT
Just as our focus in the lab is expanding from OTT-only to include gadgets outside the living room, so are many of the majors in the OTT world busily branching out into the Internet of Things (IOT). Let’s have a look.
For the past few years, the leadup to every Apple announcement always includes plenty of hype about Apple TV – a hardware update to the streaming player is always predicted, but never shows up.
That held true at Apple’s recent World Wide Developers Conference (handily abbreviated “the WWDC”), where there was once again no new TV-related hardware. Instead, a number of new developments on the IOT front:
Along with iOS 8 Apple is releasing HomeKit, software that runs on an iPhone or iPad and controls lights, security cameras, thermostats, garage doors – pretty standard connected home stuff. Apple has a certification program for hardware partners, and is already working with a bunch of companies, including TI, Honeywell, and Marvell.
HomeKit hardware partners
HomeKit will be controlled by Siri, so you can say something like “Siri, get ready for bed” and it will dim the lights for you. I don’t have much hope for that at this point, but maybe Siri will get a lot better with iOS 8. Speaking as someone who spent several minutes this morning trying in vain to get Siri to understand an address and give me directions, I sure hope so.
Perhaps more exciting: Apple is developing a framework called HealthKit in partnership with the Mayo Clinic and Nike, which pulls in data from 3rd-party apps to keep tabs on health metrics, over time, and allows clinicians to easily access information from your health apps. We don’t have much information yet, and clearly there are a lot of questions to be answered about security, but it’s exciting to see big companies getting involved in modernizing healthcare (more on that in a future post.)
In April, Samsung released the “Gear Fit,” a smartwatch with a pedometer baked in, to lukewarm reviews – apparently Samsung’s custom software leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Then, on May 28, Samsung announced the Simband — a wearable prototype that measures key vital signs like heart rate, heart rate regularity, skin temperature, oxygen levels and carbon dioxide levels – impressive, but not an actual product, yet.
Samsung also introduced SAMI (Samsung Architecture for Multimodal Applications), an open software platform for wearables and sensor technology. We like the potential of an open platform, and the health applications are potentially exciting, but we’re not sure Samsung will be the one to ultimately succeed (our own experiences with their devices could be a post all on their own.)
Back in March, Google announced its Android Wear initiative, extending its Android operating system to cover wearables (early arrivals to the market include smart watches from Motorola and LG; Samsung’s early Gear smartwatches used Android Wear as well). The Android Wear SDK is currently in Developer Preview, to be officially launched later this year.
And in other areas of the home, there are persistent rumors of Google subsidiary Nest (the gorgeous, automated thermostat) buying Dropcam, makers of the $150 WiFi security camera. What, you don’t want Google recording the goings-on in your home? They’re already reading our email, after all…
With all these gadgets and sensors in our homes and on our bodies, security is obviously a big concern — and there are currently some gaping holes that need to be filled. We’ll keep a close eye on what each of these massive companies does (or doesn’t do) to protect our data, in addition to how well the products actually work.
Boxee: What went wrong?
Once upon a time, at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, a plucky startup gleefully intercepted a tour of visiting cable television executives, asking if they’d like to see how their technology – named Boxee – was going to kill the cable industry.
On July 8, Samsung quietly bought Boxee, paying $30 million. And while we may see hints of Boxee in future iterations of Samsung Smart TVs (or maybe a streaming device?), it’s curtains for Boxee’s Cloud DVR service.
Shortly after going public with news of the acquisition, Boxee posted this on its website:
We were so hopeful that someday – eventually – we’d get Boxee’s Cloud DVR service in our area! But alas, as the months stretched on, our anticipation dwindled. Despite promises to roll out service to 26 markets by the end of the year, at the time of sale Boxee’s DVR service was still only in 9 of the largest television markets (Dallas, Houston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Seattle.)
We can’t help but notice what the first Boxee Cloud DVR markets all have in common: Wal-Mart. When Boxee switched focus to a cloud DVR service, you see, it signed an exclusive brick-and-mortar deal with Wal-Mart. So last Christmas, if you were considering a Boxee TV device, you had two options: Wal-Mart, or Boxee’s website.
Here’s the problem: Wal-Mart stores inhabit rural areas. In metro areas where Boxee first launched its DVR service? Not so much. (Whoops.)
Add to that the fact that many retail displays failed to point out the fact that Boxee’s “No Limits DVR” indeed had one very big limitation: The service just wasn’t available in most areas. Wal-Mart shoppers across the nation were (rightly) indignant at spending $100 and expecting to be able to use a service that wasn’t actually available yet. As you might imagine, this led to angry returns. (Nobody wants to be the one who gives – or receives — the lackluster Christmas gift.)
It got worse. In the markets that carried Boxee’s DVR service, people complained. The box was buggy. It crashed all the time. People felt like they were paying to be beta testers.
Adding to the frustration, Boxee’s Cloud DVR could only record from an antenna signal. DVR for unencrypted basic cable (ClearQAM) was promised, but not implemented.
That meant it was possible to hook the Boxee TV up to basic cable and watch ClearQAM channels live — but DVR only worked with an antenna signal. Maybe this was a technical limitation, having to do with how Boxee uploads files to its cloud. Maybe it was a rights thing – recall that Cablevision Systems fought a vicious rights battle for its “remote storage DVR” service, which twisted all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It won, with two concessions. It had to store one copy of a video asset for every subscriber seeking a view — so if half a million people asked to see “Heat,” it has to store half a million copies. Not one copy that it could share amongst the 500,000 subscribers. And, they had to call it “Remote Storage DVR.” The point: Distribution rights are tantamount to success in the video marketplace.
We do know that recording ClearQAM content isn’t an issue for Simple.tv, nor the upcoming device from Channel Master and Echostar, both of which use local storage for recordings.
And it also ate up a lot of bandwidth, with all the constant uploading to the cloud (20 GB/day, according to one user.) Even if the service rolled out to our “Farm Lab” and other rural areas, I doubt our bandwidth would’ve supported it. If Boxee TV offered a local USB storage option in addition to cloud, maybe we’d be telling a different story today.
As CE Pro pointed out, Boxee’s DVR service was probably intended to subsidize the hardware, which was about half the price of the original (and now “tele-vestigial”) Boxee Box.
In theory, “no-Limits DVR” would encourage users to record as much content as their dual tuners would allow, amassing a huge library of shows to keep and maybe someday watch. (Speaking of Cablevision Systems – it just bumped its cloud DVR capacity to 10 simultaneously recording tuners.)
And so, in theory, subscribers would keep paying the monthly fee and recording more content, and hopefully they’d have enough invested to stick around if and when Boxee decided to jack up the subscription price. So much for cutting the cord!
But this most definitely did not happen. First off, the OTA reception in many areas (and especially my house) isn’t great, so there’s not much content available to record. And full catalogs of most network TV shows can be found readily on streaming services for a smaller monthly fee.
At this point we’re up to six major problems that plagued poor Boxee, the cable killer. And there’s more. Apparently, recording stuff wasn’t all that simple either. There was no way to pause live TV or start a recording using the box itself – recordings could only be scheduled by accessing Boxee’s website from a computer.
What’s more, recordings were often plagued by technical issues. One user described glitches with the timeline on his DVR recordings that made the shows jump back and forth, as if the content had been “chopped into chunks and shuffled like a deck of cards.”
Another common complaint was the heat coming off the coax, where the antenna attaches to the box – it’s hot enough that I’ve burned my fingers. It’s just never good when you have to worry about your gadgets setting the house on fire.
Clearly, Boxee’s Cloud DVR was nowhere near ready for rollout to 17 more cities. That said, there probably aren’t a whole lot of people out there sobbing over the fact that all their recordings vanished when Samsung pulled the plug.
Here’s a question: What happens to Boxee TV with respect to 3rd party software, especially if the technology gets bundled into Samsung’s TVs? Will we eventually see a hack like Boxee+ that might allow us to record to a hard drive, or will the Samsung treatment of Boxee TV stay so closed (or so poorly designed) that it will never support new software?
And here’s another question: What does Samsung want with Boxee? Nicholson Baker, a writer for The New Yorker, did a piece in the magazine’s July 8, 2013 edition, titled “A Fourth State of Matter.” In general, it was about liquid crystal display (LCD) technologies, most of which come from Korea. But nestled within the article was this nugget, which may explain why Samsung bought Boxee (or it may not):
“A hundred and fifty years ago, Young-hwan Kim said (I was listening to a simultaneous translation through headphones), Koreans had no weapons and were the pawns of other countries. Then, in 1984, some Korean farmers started a revolution, resisting their oppressors with poles and shovels. Now, Korea was the builder of many of the ships on the ocean, and Korea was one of the world’s great automobile makers, and Korea was a leader in the steel industry, and the preeminent supplier of liquid crystal displays. What was missing? Software. Korean must do better with software.”
So, goodbye, Boxee. We loved your pluck, and the freaky-cool design of your original hardware. And we hope your software genes are what Samsung needs. We’ll be watching for you…
Cable Show Technology Roundup
WASHINGTON, D.C.—As expected, “cloud,” Gigabit services and the Reference Design Kit (“RDK”) led the tech headlines at this year’s Cable Show. Given that you’ve likely read plenty about them by now, this week’s translation will drop in on the rest of the tech scene.
Starting with some big news that tucked in to the last day of this year’s show: A deal between Time Warner Cable and Samsung for HDTVs that come with the TWC TV application built-in. No box.
Strategically, it means that owners of the Samsung sets, who live in Time Warner Cable territory, will see the MSO’s services on “both inputs” – one and two. Meaning, whether the viewer is looking at “input one,” where “regular cable” plugs in (read: HDMI), or at “input two,” where the TV connects to IP over Ethernet or Wi-Fi, they’re seeing TWC services.
Note: Several news reports said that people who buy the TV will be able to “download” the TWC TV app. Yet, few of the connected TVs in the marketplace yet offer a “download” feature. None of the connected Samsung devices (TV, blu-ray DVD) in my little OTT video lab do. It’s more likely that the TWC TV app will show up in a negotiated section of screen within Samsung’s “walled garden” of apps.
Just as you can “see” the TWC TV on screens attached to Roku 3 streamers, the app can’t be accessed unless it is “behind” a Time Warner Cable-provisioned cable modem or gateway. That way, the viewer’s login can be checked against the MAC (media access control) address of the modem. Having a login isn’t enough. (Found THAT out.)
Another palpable tech trend at this year’s show: Wi-Fi. Right here, at the mid-point of 2013, cable-delivered Wi-Fi is spraying bits from about 200,000 outdoor hotspots. That makes cable the largest Wi-Fi provider in the U.S.
But in all likelihood, cable’s Wi-Fi footprint will expand by an order of magnitude, if Comcast has its way. At the Show, it announced plans for “neighborhood hotspots,” which works by turning existing, Wi-Fi-equipped cable modems into hot spots.
At an Imagine Park session here last Wednesday, Comcast CTO Tony Werner said that means millions and ultimately tens of millions of devices, after a firmware upgrade.
Here’s how it works: Say you have broadband service through a Comcast cable modem or wireless gateway. That device came to you with two SSIDs — service set identifiers. That’s what populates the list of names of available WiFi hot spots, when you’re looking for signal.
One of them, of course, is whatever yours is called. The other – partitioned such that it can’t see or mess with your traffic on the other — will presumably say “xfinity Wi-Fi.” (Sadly, Comcast’s WiFi momentum hasn’t reached Denver yet.)
The technique of turning home equipment into hot spots isn’t unique to Comcast – overseas operators who can’t get workable access to aerial plant, to place WiFi radios, like it too. Telenet, in Belgium, is one example, as is Liberty Global.
So for those reasons, it just seems like 200,000 cable-delivered WiFi hot spots is going to seem real puny real soon.
Lastly: I purchased this year’s batch of tech papers (I now have 25 sets, go figure), and spent a few moments looking for the masterpieces of tech-talk. A later column will pluck out the informational dandies, but just in terms of gibberish, this year’s hands-down winner goes to Patricio Latini and Ayham Al-Banna, of Arris. Their paper: “A Simple Approach for Deriving the Symbol Error Rate of Non-Rectangular 22k+1 M-ary AMPM Modulation.”
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
2008 Cable Show Tour – Samsung, Synacor, Sling, Symmetricom
At the 2008 Cable Show in hot, humid New Orleans, I interview five participants in the CableLabs “CableNet” exhibit area. In order of appearance: Samsung’s Steve Goldstein, who demonstrates the latest in 3DTV; Synacor’s Jim Turner, discussing remote DVR scheduling; Michael Hawkey, demonstrating Sling technology; and David Nicholas, discussing how technology from Symmetricom can replace traditional “golden eye” video testers. Produced by the fabulous David Knappe with equally fabulous Joe Bondulich on camera and lighting.
Video courtesy Multichannel News.
2008 Cable Show, Part 1: 3DTV
At the 2008 Cable Show, I interview five participants in the CableLabs “CableNet” exhibit area. Up first: Samsung’s Steve Goldstein, who demonstrates the latest in 3DTV.
Video courtesy Multichannel News.