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Tuesday, January 29, 2008 

Opening television to the Internet

In a rather unusual open letter, Brightcove's Jeremy Allaire and Adam Berrey addressed the consumer electronic industry asking them to open Television sets to Internet content.

The letter, which comes after the 2008 CES show in which the absence of an open industry standard for accessing Internet content on TVs was made obvious, identified a few key elements of such a standard:
  1. Direct Network Connectivity – TVs should be connected directly to the Internet through home networks, Wi-Fi, WiMAX, and Ethernet.
  2. Internet Media Browser – Every TV should have an Internet Media Browser (IMB) designed for finding, browsing and viewing video from the Internet. Unlike a web browser, the IMB as a standard should be designed around a narrower goal of browsing and viewing streaming video and music. The IMB would be like the traditional cable electronic programming guide (EPG) for Internet content. With the IMB, consumers should be able to browse through any media catalog published on the Internet and stream the videos and audio directly to their TV. The IMB should handle playback with standard codecs including MP3, Flash Video (VP6), H.264, and VC-1. Finally the IMB should support a simple, standardized programming model that would enable ad insertion and analytics integration through web protocols.
  3. Catalog Publishing – To get listings and content into the Internet Media Browsers, we will need a standard for any Internet publisher to publish catalogs of media content. Most likely using XML, this standard would provide a simple way for any website with media content to list that content along with the metadata, such as title and description, and pointers to the physical files. This standard would mean that regardless of the device, an IMB would be able to easily display the listings and access the streaming content. The relationship between the publishing standard and IMBs would be like the relationship between RSS and RSS readers.
  4. Registration Services – The final component is one that would create a natural bridge between web browsing on a PC and Internet Media Browsing from a TV. The core of this is a standard for registering devices with an online service where consumers can save links to the media catalogs they'd like to access from their TV. With this mechanism in place, it would be easy for someone to click a link from a web page to say, "I want to watch this on my TV," and have the video or collection of videos registered online and automatically made available on their TV the next time they turn it on. By making this an open standard, companies providing cloud services could compete in an open market place and consumers could choose the service they want whether it's from a manufacturer, social network, portal or someone else.
While I agree with the above suggestions and in fact TVersity today addresses most of them, I think the letter is misguided. The consumer electronics industry will not be able to respond on time to the obvious consumer need to access their favorite Internet content in the living room and will therefore lose this opportunity to game consoles and set-top-boxes.

My thinking is simple, they will need a substantial amount of time to get their act together, (believe me I know, TVersity has been discussing ways to bring the Internet to the living room with consumer electronic companies for a long time) and then it takes another 7 years or so for these new TVs to be deployed in a large enough number of households (A typical household keeps their TV set at least that amount of time and since many just got a new HD TV they won't make a new investment for a while). Until that time content publishers won't have a critical mass of viewers so they won't bother addressing this market.

In the same time, the latest generation game consoles have been deployed in more than 20 million homes already, it has impressive Internet capabilities and at least two of the three consoles (the PS3 and the Xbox 360) were designed as multimedia gateways. Microsoft and Sony are very well aware of the Internet opportunity and are looking to capitalize on it and usurp the market long before the CE guys can make their move.

While this is all taking place, the existing rulers of the living room, the cable and satellite TV operators are not going to give up their control without a battle. Comcast's announcement of project Infinity and tru2way are two indications of it. Add to that the fact that TV operators are able to deploy new set-top-boxes faster than TVs are sold and that their latest generation HD-DVRs have updatable firmware and an Ethernet connection, and once again it is obvious that they can make a market changing move long before the CE guys.

Of-course the open letter would not have been any more effective if it were addressed at TV operators or game console companies. It is the nature of every emerging market to go through all the "unnecessary" stages of extreme fragmentation and eventual consolidation both in terms of products and standard and in terms of companies that deliver them. This market is no exception, if anything it is going to be much worse, since a lot is at stake and the players come from many different tradiitonally isolated industries (Software, TV service providers, CE companies, networking companies, Set-Top-Box companies and more).

What do you think about this letter?

I think initially the majority of consumer investment in "Internet video in the living room" (let's call it "InterTV") will be made across the discrete components required to actuate the experience: broadband service, home network cabling/wifi products, home PC devices, multimedia (uPNP-AV) gateway devices & HDTV devices. The advantage to the consumer approaching InterTV this way is flexibility and immediacy. The disadvantage is the enormous effort required to put this in place in a usable and reliable manner - hence this approach will only be embraced by early adopters and innovators.

Over time, the early majority members of the InterTV market segment - excited by the experiences demonstrated to them by their eraly adopter friends - will begin to invest in InterTV. They will,however, quickly recoil at the complexity and fragility of the "discrete components" approach, and investment will begin to be directed at integrated solutions packaged as a combination of products & services, either through bundles or monolithic packages.

As the multimedia gateway is the "market maker" in both phases, it is here where the industry will turn, as as such I agree that Microsoft and Sony will be the kingmakers in the InterTV market.

If I had to choose, I'd go with Microsoft, unless Sony & Apple merge or forge a long-running strategic alliance ASAP.

I agree completely that game consoles and set-top boxes have a better leverage than TVs, and they will be able to offer 'Internet TV' first.

But the 'open letter' describes a much bigger problem: there is no good format for publishing a collection of content ('TV shows'). RSS lacks structuring that would be needed to offer a good user experience (such as being able to sort episodes of a TV show into seasons, so you can start with the first episode and not with the most recent one) and it also is not helpful for presenting the show in an attractive way - a description text and an icon are not enough. (BTW music albums have a similar problem, a ZIP of MP3 is not a good replacement for the CD jewel case with booklet, there's something missing in digital music distributionright now).

Similarly, there is no standard to group related shows ('TV channel') or for guides.

I agree with the author of the open letter that there is a vacuum that should be filled. Microsoft, Sony and Apple probably won't, because they seem to be interested only in their proprietary online stores. I don't think that the CE industry or media companies will solve it. Just like RSS has been created 'on the internet' and has then been adopted by media companies, such a format would have to be adopted by video bloggers on the net first, and only then be used by the CE industry and big media companies.

Why not add a webbrowser as a replacement for Teletext (sp?) and TV-Guide ?
It's not like you'd need a superfast pc to run a browser and the hardware is already available and relatively cheap.

In fact Samsung is already selling tv's with a built-in pc that runs XP from a flashdisk!

Then there's companies like Philips who've already added what looks like an UPnP-capable player to at least one of their more expensive tv's (Philips 42PF9731D/10).

The consoles might move faster, but that is merely theory. Microsoft still hasn't enabled its video-rental-service for all countries for example. So there's still plenty of chance for the traditional industry to catch them.

To be honest ... I still am reminded of Bruce Springsteens' song "57 channels and nothing on".
Because getting the content to the consumer isn't the biggest issue.
Making sure that there's anything worth seeing/hearing is.

Considering the amount of content out there on the internet, it still surprises me that there is no simple solution for watching this content in your living room through your TV.

It has to be simple and transparent.
Not unlike selecting a channel on your satellite or cable box.

Almost a decade ago Bill Gates mentioned the TV in the living room being the center of internet content yet no rules or protocol exist to bring this to our living rooms.

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