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The February 25, 2008 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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Video: Who's In Control?

The video entertainment world is in flux. We have been writing about the challenges to the established players for the past few years, and this year's CES was a good place to observe some of the turmoil. The upheaval has come about because

  • New tools make it ever-easier to create video content, so there is more of it than ever before
  • New websites provide hosting for video, removing the barriers between established producers and the new entrants
  • Broadband video content is becoming increasingly important to the product plans of consumer electronics companies and the consumers who buy their devices
  • Consumers want to see this broadband content on their TVs, but need simple ways to hook things together and make them work
  • Consumers are getting frustrated with the ever multiplying number of boxes needed for complete video entertainment experiences. Putting together TVs, cable set-top boxes, PVRs, media servers, NAS storage, home networking and more is not a job for the faint of heart.

All the players--old and new--want a share of the revenue that will come from monetizing this content. Every industry grouping is jockeying for position:

  • Apple, Microsoft and Intel have long pushed their platforms as appropriate devices to receive and store television content as well as broadband Internet content. Microsoft and Apple both promote networked devices to link their PCs to HD TV sets.
  • Every networking equipment company offers one or several devices to adapt TVs for networking; some of these are designed to work with PCs, while others can operate on their own. Many of these companies also now offer various forms of network attached storage (NAS) capable of storing video libraries and providing HD video streams; these are increasingly being positioned as home servers.
  • Consumer electronics companies have long controlled many aspects of the home audio/video environment and want to keep the genie in the bottle. Some already offer TVs with built-in networking. Others are trying to establish industry standards designed to keep networked video within a "video island".

Where Does Video Content Come From?

The sources of video have blossomed. The cable viewer has ever more choices--Comcast says its viewers will have "more than 1,000 high-definition choices" by the end of 2008 and more than 6,000 movies a month in 2009. Online media is taking an increasing share of eyeballs. Network and cable TV and movies now include user-generated content.

Microsoft joined the "my number is bigger than yours" contingent at CES by announcing that NBC Universal--which owns the exclusive U.S. media rights to this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing--has formed an alliance with MSN and Microsoft to create "NBC Olympics.com on MSN". In addition to NBCU's Summer Olympics broadcasts, Bill Gates's CES keynote described plans for MSN to offer 2,200 hours of live event video coverage, with more than 20 simultaneous live video streams at peak times, as well as more than 3,000 hours of on-demand video content.

Microsoft President of Entertainment & Devices, Robbie Bach, announced that Xbox Live now has 3,500 hours of content available on-demand. Bach said that's twice the amount of any cable or satellite TV operator--which seemed like a pretty overt challenge to the incumbent video providers. Microsoft also announced that they are bringing together BT's Vision next-generation TV service, with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 games and entertainment system for "all in one" entertainment.

Meanwhile, more and more people are trying their hands at video production. Video sites like YouTube and its competitors make it easy to reach an audience. Most of these will be vanity videos for family and friends, but some are starting to break out and find wider audiences. A few have crossed over to the traditional video media, but all can be accessed with an Internet connection.

As these new videos embrace better production values and higher resolution video, viewers would like to see them on a flat-screen TV rather than a PC monitor. That's getting easier. Some people have installed networked digital media adapters to create a bridge between the PC and the TV.


TV Needs PC -- Or Does It?

People have become used to viewing online video content on their PCs, so it's natural to think of PCs as the conduit for getting video to the TV. And it is certainly the default way that people do it today. Increasingly, however, there is a move to Internet connected devices, including TVs, without the PC as intermediary.

At CES, Panasonic introduced their new VIERA® line of Plasma Internet-connected HDTV’s, which do not depend on either PCs or cable set top boxes. They provide viewers with direct access to YouTube videos and to Google's Picasa Web Albums. Equipped with Tru2way technology (previously called OCAP),these TVs will be able to access interactive digital cable video services, including interactive program guides and video on demand, without a set top box.

Samsung is planning multiple options. They already have RSS-enabled HDTVs and announced their See'N'Search set-top box at CES. This box examines channel guide information and closed caption metadata in the background and can suggest video or websites that complement what the user is viewing. Details are sparse, so we're not counting on seeing this in the short term. (It is also not clear whether Samsung will offer Media Center extenders to bridge the PC and TV; after CES, Engadget showed pictures of one they said Microsoft had at the show, but Samsung is not talking.)

H-P showed its latest line of networked digital televisions. Sharp also made connected-TV announcements.

In addition to these announcements featuring "direct to TV" from the Internet, CES certainly had its share of announcements and new products which bridge from the PC to the TV. For example, Netgear debuted their Digital Entertainer HD EVA8000 for streaming HD video from home PCs and storage devices to HDTV sets. The device automatically discovers HD movies, TV shows, music files, and personal photos on a home network, across multiple computers, and organizes these into a single media library displayed on a TV without the need for media server software running on the computer. The EVA8000 can play protected files in both iTunes and Windows Media formats and handles 1080p HD video. It can also play Web-based videos from sites such as YouTube and photos directly from Flickr without a computer.

D-Link DPG-1200 --> Click for larger pictureNot to be outdone, Buffalo and D-Link also showed their solutions. Indeed, D-Link hedged its bets by showing five different "MediaLounge Entertainment Network" devices for moving digital media to the TV. You think Windows Media Center is going to win?--if so, D-Link has a Media Center Extender for you. You like the PC but not Media Center?--three media players don't require Media Center. You don't want to use the PC?--yet another device can play HD videos from the Internet without a PC.


Set top boxes -- Going Away or Proliferating?

Although many of the new HDTVs don't require an external set top box to get cable services, set-tops are certainly not disappearing. Instead, they seem to be coming from all corners of the industry.

We've already mentioned XBox as one of the consumer electronics devices that is getting entertainment content from movie and TV studios. Apple TV, on the market for nearly a year, has similar capabilities.

The retail version of TiVo is another set-top that is increasingly bringing online entertainment content to the TV. In addition to their previously-announced deal with Amazon Unbox--which lets users browse movie and TV titles and have them sent to their "Now Playing" List--TiVo announced that their users will soon be able to subscribe to and watch a broad range of content available on Real Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds. RSS feeds can be part of a viewer’s "season pass" and will appear in the user’s Now Playing List alongside recorded TV shows. TiVo will also provide an on-screen guide of selected web video sources for users to browse and select Season Pass recordings.

The features on the retail TiVo box differ in some aspects from the version TiVO is deploying with service providers. Service providers such as Comcast will download a custom version of the TiVo code to the user's current set-top box; users are likely to be limited to the service provider's on-demand content.

At the show, Digeo, makers of the Moxi® digital media recorder (DMR), announced alliances with four content providers: Flickr, Finetune, Accedo Broadband and CloverLeaf Digital LLC. Digeo said these content sources will be integrated into the user interface, providing one spot for accessing entertainment. After the show, Digeo announced some major cutbacks in staff and in products being developed. It says it expects to maintain its goal of integration with online content, but the timing of its long-awaited retail products is unclear.

vudu set top box --> Click for larger pictureThe relatively new company VUDU has its own box to bring video entertainment—including an increasing number of HD movies—to the living room TV. It says playback of HD movies can be viewed "instantly" with a 3 Mbps Internet connection, and will still work with delayed viewing over a 2 Mbps connection.

Sling Media is yet another video box maker that had some CES announcements. Announced last year, their SlingCatcher set top box had its first public demonstration at this year's show. SlingCatcher delivers broadcast TV, Internet-based content and personal media to the TV. It can “sling” programming to another TV in the home or to a TV in a remote location without a PC. It can act as a repository for content and can pull content from multiple sources and places, providing easy navigation and playback of the unified content.

Home gateways can do it too

4HomeMedia offers digital media content access --> Click for larger pictureWe mentioned Actiontec and 4HomeMedia in our separate article on wireless home control. In addition to controlling Z-Wave devices, the latest 4HomeMedia software also provides integrated digital media content access and management. At CES, 4HomeMedia demonstrated its software running on an Actiontec platform and providing access to YouTube without the use of a PC.


It depends on what you mean by "PC"

Is a "PC" needed to connect a TV to online content? In its simplest terms, a PC is a box with a processor, storage, memory and communications sub-systems, plus an operating system and application software. When consumer electronics devices connect "without a PC," the necessary hardware and software elements from the PC move inside the TV, a set top box, a gateway, or another CE device. Most of these systems use the Linux operating system, with the user interface hidden away. For the user, the biggest difference is that unlike PCs these devices work as soon they're turned on--little or no time is needed to set them up the first time, and then they just work.

Intel is getting into this game too. In his CES keynote, CEO Paul Otellini highlighted how phones, televisions and other CE devices which connect to the Internet are taking on more computing characteristics. Otellini demonstrated the first Intel Architecture-based system-on-a-chip product optimized for a new generation of set-top boxes, media players and TVs. Codenamed "Canmore" and available in 2H08, it will pair a powerful PC-class processor core with dedicated A/V processing, a 3-D graphics unit for compelling user interfaces and technologies to enable broadcast TV.


Where is this all going?

It would be nice to say that it's clear how this is all going to play out. But the only thing that's clear to us is that no one really understands how and in what form(s) the online video world will coalesce. Everyone is trying their own set of options, based on their markets, strengths and assets, hoping that theirs will still be standing when and if the music stops.

It's not likely that there will be a single answer--the global markets are big enough for many viable solutions.

Not very satisfying? That's how technology transitions play out in the real world.

( www.comcast.com ) ( www.microsoft.com ) ( www.nbcuni.com ) ( www.xbox.com ) ( www.panasonic.com ) ( www.samsung.com ) ( www.engadget.com ) ( www.netgear.com ) ( www.buffalotech.com ) ( www.d-link.com ) ( www.tivo.com ) ( www.amazon.com ) ( www.digeo.com ) ( www.vudu.com ) ( www.slingmedia.com ) ( www.actiontec.com ) ( www.4homemedia.com ) ( www.intel.com )


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