If a Broadcast Tower Is Tall Enough, Is It In the Cloud?
This week, the people of broadcast television make their way to Las Vegas, for the annual gathering of the National Association of Broadcasters.
For broadcasters in particular, it’s a weird time to be in television. The word itself — television — is equal parts strongly nostalgic, and tele-vestigial. Say “television” to a millennial, you’re a relic. Say it to any of us who grew up with that one screen as the central viewing device, it’s home.
The identity crisis facing traditional television is evident even in the show’s tagline this year: “Where Content Comes to Life.”
We took a quick poll of our favorite go-to, broadcast-side technologists over the last few weeks, to find out what’s on their shopping lists for this year’s show. Not surprisingly, 4K video, and its consumer-facing brand, UltraHD, will be the main event — but not all technologists are convinced it’s a go.
“I want to see if live TV production gear, like big production switchers, has made any progress — we’re building a big new production facility, but so far it’s only being outfitted for HD,” said one network-side technologist.
Refresher: UltraHD and 4K video is the next big thing coming from the consumer electronics side of the television eco-system — but the rest of that eco-system is still catching up. From the HDMI connectors into 4KTVs, to the physical media (Blu-Ray is arguably still “not big enough” to hold 4K video), to the bandwidth requirements, to the cameras, and whatever else we’re missing, there’s work to be done.
But! The challenges facing the rollout of 4K are nearly identical to those facing HD, when it first hit the market. And if the NAB show floor is any indication, and to use a medical analogy — there are plenty of white blood cells flooding all the problem areas, seeking to make each juncture healthy and well.
And then there’s the other stuff that typically lines the floor of a convention for broadcast engineers.
“Betcha I don’t see any transmitters or towers,” said another, who wondered when the “B” in “NAB” switches from “Broadcasters” to “Broadband.”
And, like everywhere else, “cloud” and the transition to Internet Protocol everything, from image capture to production to post-production to screen,” will crowd the exhibit hall. “It will be interesting to see how many possible functions can be stuffed into the cloud, or say that they can,” noted a content-side technologist.
Added another: “Wait a minute: If a broadcast tower is high enough, does that count as being in the cloud?”
Ah, the existential engineers in our tele-vestigial worlds. What would we do without them?
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
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…