Tag Archives | Internet TV

Hulu Goes Medieval on Boxee

boxee_logoAt first, the kerfuffle involving the way startup Boxee used clever software to bring Hulu’s Internet TV service to TV sets was rather gentlemanly. Hulu asked Boxee to remove it, and explained why in a blog post that was almost apologetic–and which pretty much blamed it all on Hollywood content owners. Boxee thoughtfully replied in a post of its own–and complied. Unfortunate, yes, but civil.

And then Boxee cleverly used Hulu’s public RSS to bring back access to Hulu content. This time, there was no socratic dialog or genteel request–Hulu blocked Boxee from accessing its feeds.

I’m still sorting out my feelings here–the contrarian in me still believes in Letting People Make Their Own Damn Mistakes–but there’s no question that Hulu’s actions run contrary to the spirit of RSS feeds (which were designed to let folks access contact from whatever tool they pleased) and are a setback for Internet TV’s migration from the computer onto the TV. Which is a migration that’s inevitable, and a boon for consumers.

So I know who I’m ultimately rooting for here: Boxee and Boxee users (the latter group of which includes…me). Hulu hasn’t addressed this latest twist on its blog, but I hope it does so–it’s a company that’s built up a lot of cred for being surprisingly with-it for an enterprise formed by major media conglomerates, and it would be sad to see it backslide into a mode that’s paranoid, obtuse, and resistant to technological developments that help more people get at the cool things it’s doing.

One way or another, an awful lot of us will be watching Hulu or Hulu-like services on our TVs. Boxee is intrepid and innovative, and I hope it gets the opportunity to play a major role in getting us there…

[UPDATE: Dave Zatz right in the comments when he says this tug of war will be ongoing–Boxee is reporting in its blog that the Hulu feed is working again. For now.]


Roku's TV Box Adds Amazon Video on Demand

Roku Digital Video PlayerRoku’s little $100 digital video player–also known as the NetFlix Player–just got a lot more interesting…and a lot less Netflix-centric. The company is rolling out support for Amazon’s Video on Demand, adding Amazon’s 40,000 movies and TV shows to the 12,000+ offered by Netflix’s Watch Instantly service (there’s some overlap). It’s the least expensive, most straightforward way to get Amazon video onto a TV. (Other options include TiVo and a $200 adapter for Sony Bravia TVs.)

40,000 items give Amazon Video on Demand one of the richest content libraries of any Internet service, but it still doesn’t make for a full-blown Blockbuster substitute: It’s missing some titles (all Disney releases, notably) and everything is in merely adequate standard-definition, not HD. Stuff looked reasonably good on my 19-inch 720p LCD TV, and–like all SD content–not so impressive on my 42-inch 1080p one.

Netflix Watch Instantly provides all-you-can-enjoy access to its eclectic (read: incomplete and random, but interesting) library of titles. But except for some free items, Amazon puts a la carte prices on everything it offers. TV shows are 99 cents to rent (when available) and $1.99 to buy; movies are $3.99 (new releases) and $2.99 (everything else) to rent for 24 hours, and mostly $14.99 (new releases) and $9.99 (everything else) to buy.  The prices are comparable to those at Apple’s iTunes and other purveyors of online video. But Amazon being Amazon, there are some deals–at the moment, for instance, you can rent Journey to the Center of the Earth or Meet Dave for 99 cents.

The Roku box is so small (about the size of a loaded club sandwich) and cheap in part because it doesn’t contain a hard drive. I wondered if that would leave it gasping to keep up with video as it streamed it wirelessly over the Net, but in my tests with a 6Mbps cable-modem connection, it performed like a champ–playback was smooth and glitch-free. There was just a pause of a few sections at the start while it buffered enough data to begin, and a similar one when I fast-forwarded into a TV show or movie or skipped backwards. (Both Netflix and Amazon give you nifty thumbnails that help you figure out where you are as you hop around.)

Since there’s no drive, even Amazon titles you purchase sit on Amazon’s servers when you’re not watching them. In fact, you get can at them not only through the Roku box, but also from a PC or Mac, or other devices that support Amazon Video on Demand.

At a hundred bucks, the Roku player is one of the least expensive ways to get video off the Internet and onto a TV. But Roku didn’t just make its gadget cheap–it tried to create an Internet TV box that’s as simple as possible. Setup is a cakewalk (the box has HDMI, component, S-Video, and composite hookups, and both Wi-Fi and Ethernet). The remote control has nine buttons and needs no explanation; browsing around in menus just makes sense, and Netflix and Amazon work similarly. My one major gripe: You can sort through popular Amazon content via sections such as “Top TV Shows” and Top Channels,” but there’s no way to search on the box or even see alphabetical lists of titles. To really get access to all 40,000 items, you need to find and buy them in a browser on a computer. (As for Netflix, all locating of content is done on a computer, where you put items in a queue just as when you order DVDs; the box is for playback only.)

This box lacks the versatility of the $229 Apple TV, which syncs up video, photos, and music between your TV, Macs and PCs, and iPod or iPhone. It also makes to attempt to compete with the image quality of either Apple TV or Vudu’s $149 box, both of which offer a fair amount of HD. (The only HD Roku currently has are 200-odd Netflix items, and the quality far from eye-popping.) But the player is cheap, small, simple, and fun, and the Netflix feature provides unlimited access to a smorgasbord of material for the cost of a Netflix subscription. I got a kick out of it.

The Roku digital video player is available direct from Roku and from Amazon. Here’s a video walkthrough of what it’s like to find and watch Amazon video on the Roku (and, after the jump, some still images).

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TV.com on iPhone: Decent Enough. But I Want My Hulu!

tvcomThe iPhone is really an iManyThings: iCommunicator, iMusicPlayer, iGameConsole, and iRemoteControl. I’d love it to be an iTV, too–a rich source of on-demand television shows from broadcast and cable networks that stream live over its Net connection and (unlike the stuff Apple sells via iTunes) don’t cost anything. Little by little, that’s happening. Back in November, Joost released an iPhone app, and today it was was joined by a TV.com one, featuring new and old content from CBS and sister networks–from CSI to David Letterman to Gossip Girl to The Bold and the Beautiful to MacGyver to the original Star Trek to tech stuff from Cnet.

The single most interesting thing about TV.com’s app–to me, anyhow–isn’t the content, but the fact that you can stream it over any iPhone connection you’ve got, including Wi-Fi, 3G, and 2G. Joost is limited to Wi-Fi, and while it uses that speedy connection to provide surprisingly high-quality images, the times when I’m most likely to have Wi-Fi is when I’m at home, in close proximity to my TV set. The TV.com programming I checked out didn’t look as good as Joost’s, and some of the audio was tinny. I can’t tell to what degree TV.com adjusts its quality level to match the connection you’ve got: David Letterman looked and sounded a tad better over Wi-Fi than on 3G, but Star Trek seemed about the same on 2G as Wi-Fi–it just loaded faster over Wi-Fi. On the plus side, I didn’t notice any hiccups or buffering issues with the video or audio–even over 2G, playback was smooth.

Speaking of speed, the TV.com app feels sluggish to me so far unless I’m on Wi-Fi–not just the videos, but other graphical images such as thumbnails pop into place at a leisurely pace. The search feature could use some work, too: When I searched for “Star Trek,” the results page didn’t show the episode titles, so I had to click through to see what was what.

TV.com touts that it streams full episodes of shows as well as clips, and that’s true–but all the full shows I saw had been broken up into chunks of a few minutes each. I’m not sure whether that’s for technical reasons or simply because TV.com thinks that iPhone users are more likely to want to snack on shows a bite or two at time than watch them from start to finish.

As with Joost’s iPhone incarnation, I’m pleased to see TV.com landing on the iPhone, but more than anything else, it whets my appetite for what a Hulu iPhone app could be, given that Hulu has by far the strongest content lineup of any free TV streaming site. There’s no word yet if or when Hulu might land on iPhones. But I’m also eager to see Sling’s SlingPlayer Mobile for the iPhone–and that, supposedly, may be just around the corner.

I remain confident that the iPhone is going to become a great mobile TV sooner or later, but I’m still not sure about how or when…

After the jump, a few images from TV.com for iPhone:

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Yahoo's Bartz Blogs; Yahoo Connected TV Impresses

YahooI’m generally not into following internal machinations at Yahoo very closely–corporate twists and turns mean very little unless they have an impact on the products and services we consumers get. But I did read and admire new Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz’s post on the company’s corporate blog today. It’s pretty unflinching in its weighing of the company’s strengths and weaknesses, at least for a public rumination. (I can’t imagine a post at an official Google blog saying anything even slightly critical about that company’s culture–though it’s easier, of course, for Bartz to criticize given that she’s not responsible for anything that’s gone wrong at Yahoo up into this point.

Bartz’s post talks about a corporate reorg and a new Customer Advocacy Group, and promises services that will be awesome, exciting, and make you say “wow.” Fine. Like I say, the proof is in the products, and any changes there are yet to come. But here’s one upcoming Yahoo item that  I am already excited about, which Bartz alludes to in passing: I recently visited the company and checked out its Yahoo Connected TV service, which will be built into TVs from Samsung, Sony, LG, and Vizio. It’s based on Yahoo Widgets–formerly known as Konfabulator, and the technology that pretty much kicked off the trend towards Web widgets a few years ago. The TV-based widgets I saw for news, video, and more looked slick and useful–I left the demo feeling slightly sad that there’s no way I’m going to buy a new TV anytime soon. (The first sets that incorporate the Yahoo software are due next month.)

More on Yahoo Connected TV soon, in a separate post…


Life Without Comcast: An Update

Life Without ComcastI’ve been remiss in not updating you on my experiment in using an Apple TV with Boxee’s media-center software as a substitute for my pricey Comcast service. “Life Without Comcast” may be a misleading title, since I haven’t tried to go cold turkey–instead, I’ve done some of my TV watching via cable, and some via the Internet, and have been comparing the two experiences as I did so.

So far, my main conclusion is that these two ways to consume video content are just…different. To wit:

Pro-Comcast Points:

Cable isn’t a victim of the Hulu-Boxee debacle. The single thing that played the biggest role in making my Apple TV/Boxee setup a plausible Comcast substitute was the fact that it let my watch Hulu, the Web’s leading source of broadcast TV programming. Last week, however, Hulu reluctantly asked Boxee to remove its Hulu support, and Boxee complied. End result: A lot of mainstay cable TV programming is no longer available on Boxee. True, it still has Joost, CBS, and other content providers, and Apple TV offers a wealth of for-pay movies and TV shows (as well as some stuff for free, in podcast form). But if I’d known that I wouldn’t be able to view Hulu on my TV, I would have been a lot less gung-ho about this whole experiment.

Cable is still a must for news junkies. Live streaming of broadcast news coverage over the Internet is rare, and often iffy when it does occur. Podcasts are available of some shows, but they’re always delayed, and often cut down. So I’m still doing much of my consuming of news via various all-news channels. And when major stories break, I still want the option of turning on the TV and surfing the coverage on multiple stations.

Cable is a heck of a lot closer to being glitch-free. Most means of watching video across the Internet are subject to at least occasional hiccups, and some are crippled by technical problems–especially when wireless networking is involved. Even Netflix’s slick and appealing Watch Instantly service has its issues: I tried to watch Network via it on my TiVo HD (see below) last night, and the soundtrack was out of sync with the image by about three seconds. With cable, I can be reasonably confident that the stuff I want to watch will work–and keep working until I’m done watching it.

HD is cool. And while I can get some HD content on Apple TV, it’s still a relative rarity. (Blocky YouTube-like video, on the other hand, is in plentiful supply.) When I want to watch high-def, Comcast has far more to offer.

Anti-Comcast points:

Financially, cable is woefully inefficient. At least for someone like me who doesn’t really gorge on TV. For every hour of cable programming I watch and enjoy, I’m paying for hundreds of stations of absolutely zero interest to me. (Sorry, Fox Soccer Channel, MTV Jams, ZeeTV, and Sprout.) The movies and TV shows that Apple delivers through Apple TV aren’t free, but they’re all a la carte.

Cable has a short attention span. Yesterday, I set up a TiVo HD, a few months after my beloved old standard-def TiVo more or less croaked on me. As part of get it up and running, I had to program it to record stuff I like–and I was startled by how many of the old sitcoms I dig are no longer available on cable. Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, and Bob Newhart are off the air…but they’re all on Hulu. And even if I can’t watch them on my Apple TV anymore, they’re available on my laptop.

Cable is available in one place. On the TV in my living room–unless I pay for extra set-top boxes. Or use a Slingbox (which, full disclosure, I do) to put it elsewhere. All the Internet TV I can get on Boxee is also available on all of my computers. Some of it’s on my iPhone, too, and over time I’m sure that all of it will be phone-friendly.

Cable is tied to a schedule. Yes, Comcast offers some shows and movies via its OnDemand video-on-demand service, and you can rent a Comcast DVR or buy something like a TiVo to watch your favorite stuff at any time. But you’re still going to miss some stuff you wanted to see because you forgot about it, or were busy when it was on. On the Web, by contrast, the default state of video programming is on demand: You can watch the last episode of Late Night With Conan O’Brien whenever you feel like it, and even if your DVR hasn’t been set to record Conan since the last millennium.

Bottom line: So far, at least, this little adventure hasn’t left me feeling like I can drop cable without missing it. At least not yet, and not via Boxee in its de-Hulued state. I’m continuing with the experiment, though, and will continue to write about it. You gotta think that Internet TV is going to evolve and improve rapidly over the next year or two, while cable is likely to stay pretty much like it is today.

Oh, and I am considering dropping the Comcast phone service I signed up for when I moved into my new home last summer–but that’s a subject for another post….


Comcast OnDemand Goes Online

ComcastSilicon Alley Insider’s Dan Frommer has posted a worthwhile read on Comcast’s upcoming Internet TV service, which is due later this year. It’s tentatively called OnDemand Online, and it sounds like it’ll be a rough equivalent of the company’s OnDemand cable service, featuring content from cable channels and available only to Comcast subscribers. It’s in addition to the company’s Hulu-like Fancast site, which focuses on free content from broadcast channels.

It’s impossible to think about OnDemand Online without obsessing over this week’s removal of Hulu from Boxee, the software that lets you watch Internet TV on a TV. Some observers wonder if cable companies were behind Hulu’s request that Boxee cease streaming its programming. I have no idea whether Comcast was involved, it would be a bummer to think that the company was trying to pre-empt competition for its new service by strongarming it out of action. Internet-based streaming is going to provide increasingly stiff competition for Comcast and other cable companies over the next few years, and while it makes perfect sense for Comcast to jump into the game, I gnash my teeth at the thought that it could be a fait accompli that it will dominate Internet TV in the same way it dominates cable…


Hulu Gives Boxee the Boot. Thanks, Hollywood!

Life Without ComcastOkay, now this just stinks: Boxee, the cool software that lets you pipe Internet TV and other digital media onto a TV set, is doing away with its support for Hulu, the most significant purveyor of streaming versions of broadcast TV programming. I take the move personally, since I recently bought an Apple TV in large part to run Boxee on it, and in particular to watch Hulu.

But I’m not mad at Boxee (who’s in a tough spot, and whose support for Hulu was unofficial rather than based on a partnership), and I don’t think I’m irked with Hulu, either. The latter company’s blog is explaining that its content providers were ticked off over their stuff being available on Hulu and therefore forced the issue. Minor kudos to Hulu for addressing what’s happening on the blog rather than pretending that it’s not a big deal for Boxee fans.

(Side note: I don’t know whether there’s any connection between this and the news that Ed Oswald reported on earlier today involving Hulu programming disappearing from TV.com.)

The instinctive response, of course, is to start slamming those content providers as clueless Hollywood types who don’t get the Internet and hate their TV-consuming customers. And it is a shame that they’re depriving Boxee users of their stuff: If the whole business model of Hulu involves monetizing TV by supporting it with ads, you’d think that Boxee eyeballs would be just as valuable as any others that watch those ads. Maybe more so, given that anybody who’s an early adopter of Boxee is likely a particularly hardcore TV fan.

Neither Boxee’s nor Hulu’s commentary on this development explains why content owners don’t want their shows on Boxee. My guess is that A) they’re uneasy with having stuff show up in an environment they don’t control; and B) they’re still not comfortable with Internet TV showing up on TV, where it competes more directly with the old-fashioned broadcast incarnations of the same programs. As well-done as Hulu is, I suspect that it’s still a pretty lousy advertising medium compared to prime time. (The Hulu shows I catch, at least, are often supported by public-service messages rather than big-name sponsors.)

Spo short-term, I’m disgruntled over not being able to watch Hulu on Boxee; long-term, my question is this: Do Hulu’s content providers have a problem with Boxee in particular or Hulu-on-a-TV in general? My hope is that Hulu is actively working on other means of bringing its nifty service to the living room; if Hollywood is short-sighted enough to nix that, then by all means let the name-calling begin.

And hey, does anyone want to buy a slightly-used Apple TV?


The Internet on Your TV: Finally Ready For Prime Time?

Web TV LogoMany years ago–I think it was 1998 or thereabouts–I wrote a big feature story for PC World on a bevy of new devices that aimed to bring the Internet to America’s TV sets. I spent weeks living with Microsoft’s Web TV, Gateway 2000’s Destination living-room PC, and other gadgets. They were the first spawn of the technology industry’s irrational exuberance over the idea that the Web and TV were a match made in heaven. I didn’t fall in love with any of them. (I do, however, remember enjoying playing games on the Destination’s giant screen–as I recall, it was all of 32 inches.)

Almost all the devices I tried flopped–Web TV was the closest one to a modest success, and it was embraced by an unexpected audience: senior citizens who wanted to stay in touch with family but who didn’t want to bother with the complexity of a full-blown PC. For close to a decade, the whole notion of putting the Internet on a TV mostly disappeared; even computers built to live in the living room have never really caught on. It wasn’t all that clear that very many people particularly wanted the Net on a TV.

Lately, though, the concept is back, in a bevy of incarnations. Not only am I writing about my experiences with watching Internet TV on a TV via Boxee’s software on an Apple TV, but I’m at work on a new PC World story about gadgets that bring Net TV and other Web content into the living room. And this time around, the whole idea seems more plausible.

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Boxee Gets ABC

Life Without ComcastMinor confession: I’m not much of a watcher of current episodic network television. So even though I’m trying to do as much of my TV watching via Boxee’s media center software as possible, the fact that Boxee is adding Lost and ABC’s streaming shows to its lineup doesn’t mean much to me personally. I’ll be more psyched when more news and really old shows (What’s My Line, anyone?) are available.

But I’m still pleased by the ABC news: The biggest issue about Internet TV in general and Boxee in specific is that the selection of stuff is extremely scattershot, so the more quickly Boxee adds as much programming as possible, the better. It’ll be fabulous when there’s a way to get convenient access to all major-media streaming TV programming in one place, and it would be nifty if an inventive startup like Boxee got there first.

ABC is available in Boxee’s Mac version now; the company hopes to have it working in the Apple TV version in a few days; Linux and Windows support is in the works.


Life Without Comcast: Watching the Inauguration…or Trying To, at Least

Life Without ComcastI’m still trying to do much of my TV watching via an Apple TV box running Boxee hooked up to a TV that doesn’t have cable. This morning, however, I discovered that it’s not a great way to watch a once-in-a-lifetime event. Actually, the Internet isn’t great at broadcasting once-in-a-lifetime events yet.

I’d heard that Hulu would be streaming the inauguration live, which was good news: Boxee can put Hulu on a TV. But when I navigated over to Boxee’s Hulu menus, there was no mention of the inauguration, even though it was all over Hulu’s standard Web site. Discovery: Boxee’s Hulu presentation isn’t a direct, on-the-fly translation of the Hulu site into TV-friendly form.

Then I happened to stumble across the Boxee’s Twitterfeed, where the company was explaining that it was working on getting the inauguration up. When it did, it was Hulu’s feed of Fox News’ coverage, and it was linked to from the Boxee home page.

Nothing against Fox News, but I wanted to hop between multiple stations, and the Hulu-on-Boxee-on-Apple-TV version was in a sort of choppy slo-mo. So I switched to trying to watch the live streaming on MSNBC.com. The audio kept disappearing on me. And I noticed on Twitter that folks watching streaming coverage on multiple Internet venues all seemed to be squawking about the glitches they were encountering.

So I switched to Comcast. Live coverage on a zillion channels; perfect sound and audio; pretty easy to switch between stations. I may gripe about cable, and I most definitely get most of my news and analysis on the Web these days. But the Plain Old TV that’s been part of our lives for sixty years scales beautifully.

Anyone want to guess how long it’ll be until we can just assume that streaming Internet video will work just fine no matter how many people are watching it?