A deal the TV networks can’t refuse

If I thought my blog actually had any influence, I probably wouldn’t publish this.

Apple has just patented a gizmo (software, I assume) for seamlessly detecting ads in a media stream such as a radio broadcast and replacing them with media from some other source.

So imagine this scenario:

  1. Apple negotiates deal for AppleTV to work as a legitimate set-top box.
  2. Apple’s set-top box gains ability to automagically filter ads. (After all, what kind of media stream is a lot like a commercial radio broadcast? Oooh, commercial TV.)
  3. Suddenly, selling TV programming on demand through the iTunes model is a lot more attractive. (Indeed, I really don’t see how it’s not more attractive to sell TV shows via iTunes than try to monetize them through ads, etc. but CBS certainly seems welded onto this belief.)

Steve Jobs supposedly told Walter Isaacson that he had finally cracked TV. Does anyone imagine that his ideal TV viewing experience included ads?

Edit: looks like I’m not the only person who reacted to the patent this way.

Apple’s Broken Hub

WWDC is next week. iOS5, 10.7, and — most intriguingly — iCloud are going to be launched. I’ve been living with the AppleTV (v2, I never got the original) for several months now, and while I love this device, the ecosystem in which it operates remains deeply, and in some cases inexplicably, flawed.

I won’t go into the details of our home setup, but suffice it to say that every major category of Apple device is well-represented. (I won’t say how many iOS devices we have, it’s embarrassing.)

Now, there are plenty of major annoyances with the Apple media ecosystem that don’t have anything to do with technology, such as why won’t HBO let us buy their content (e.g. True Blood) in a timely manner? Ditto CBS. But let’s just look at the really obvious stuff that Apple could easily fix:

  • Why can’t we have an Apple remote that can power the TV set on/off, adjust volume, and select input source?
  • Why can’t I stream content from iTunes (on a Mac) to iOS devices over the LAN? Why can’t an iPad act as an AirPlay receiver?
  • Why can’t I buy something from my AppleTV and have it download to my Home Sharing server and then start streaming?
  • Why does Apple let me turn off Home Sharing on the AppleTV using the iOS Remote Control app without giving me a mechanism for turning it back on? (For that you need to use an IR remote, and if it’s lost and currently paired then you are in for a World of Hurt.)
  • Why can’t a Mac act as an AirPlay receiver?
  • Why does iTunes need to be running for everything to work? Or, why can’t it be launched automatically as needed? (Sure, I can launch it via a VNC client, but I shouldn’t have to.)
  • Why can’t a Mac act as a remote control? (E.g. via iTunes when you’re currently streaming video from that Mac to an AppleTV.)
  • Why doesn’t AppleTV respond instantly when powering on? Every other iOS device manages better response than the AppleTV. (And sometimes it’s crashed and you need to go cycle its power.)
  • Why can’t an iPhone or iPod touch act as a remote for an iPad? (Remember, Apple is selling HDMI outputs for iPads.)
  • For bonus points, why can’t airplay “hand over” sourcing of content to a server. E.g. if I have Cars half-way through on my iPad when I walk into the house, why can’t I “hand over” the playback to my AppleTV with my Mac server becoming the source?

Some of the things I thought would be issues have turned out to be non-issues:

E.g. the lack of DVR support is almost irrelevant (between Netflix and Hulu we hardly use our TiVos any more).

Similarly, ripping our existing DVDs to iTunes has been pretty effortless thanks to iRip and Handbrake (no more painful, say, than ripping MP3s from CDs back when), although as others have pointed out, ripped DVDs use more battery power to play back than iTunes purchases.

Prices in the iTunes store are pretty decent. E.g. we were unable to find better deals on Pixar movies on DVD from Costco or Amazon than iTunes, and the iTunes content is more convenient. (Bluray 1080p content is presumably somewhat better than iTunes 720P, but I’m simply not able to tell them apart with normal viewing.)

Aside: it turns out we can tuck a gen 1 iPad into our car DVD player’s mount and turn the iPad into an in-car entertainment system which doesn’t tie up the cigarette lighter slot (the DVD player could go for maybe one movie on a full charge when new, whereas the iPad can run continuously for a day of driving on a single charge, longer if it gets the charger when available). And, finally, we have a single charger that can charge our iPads (or in-car entertainment systems…) and iPhones and iPods.

Summing Up

The main problem with Apple’s digital ecosystem is that there’s content you simply can’t get without jumping backwards through hoops (and probably breaking the law). But there are plenty of technical shortcomings that Apple can and should address. Why can I stream content from this device to that device, but not this other device? Why can I control this gadget with that gadget, but not this other gadget? Right now, the best experience is streaming content from Apple or Netflix with streaming content from your Mac a fairly distant second, and dealing with content from outside Apple’s ecosystem (e.g. DVDs and rights holders that don’t want to play Apple’s game).

So what might we see on Monday?

  • iCloud digital locker for content purchased from iTunes moving forward
  • iCloud streams to all Macs and iOS devices
  • AppleTV allows purchases which become available immediately via iCloud
  • iCloud digital locker for content purchased from iTunes in the past (or with a small added fee)
  • iCloud digital locker that (say) identifies tracks you’ve ripped, or your CD or DVD, and offers to sell you a digital/streaming version at a discount
  • iCloud as an alternative to DropBox
  • iCloud to provide streaming backups for Time Machine
  • iCloud as a replacement for MobileMe
  • Gaming on TVs via AirPlay and AppleTV using iOS devices as controllers
  • Apps on AppleTV (or its successor) via iOS5
  • Gaming on AppleTV using iOS devices as controllers
  • From left field: iCloud acts as virtual DVR based on content Apple can establish you have access to — actually that sounds like a really great idea; e.g. if you can prove you have basic cable and thus receive CBS, Apple gives you access to a streamable version of the Mentalist the day after it airs. Even better, Apple simply negotiates TV rights as if it were a new cable provider and makes everything available on demand.

We’ll see.

The future is not what it was. Accept it and move on.

In the British paperback market, having a gigantic spaceship on the cover of a book used to mean "it's science fiction" regardless of the substance of the story. Suffice it to say that there are no gigantic spacecraft in "The Face" and no indication anywhere in this picture that the artist read the book or had it in mind when he created the picture.

One of my ambitions is to write a science fiction novel. Or two. I have some fairly elaborate ideas sketched out, but I’m a little short of spare time right now. I also don’t think that creative endeavors such as writing are a “zero sum game”. Science fiction is in a pretty dreadful state right now, and it’s no use to me if it withers and dies before I get around to making my contribution to the genre.

Here's the latest printing of the same series (this is volume 1, the second volume is very similar). Note what looks like some kind of space carrier on the cover. Aha, it must be "science fiction". (You can guess how many "space carriers" figure in the series.)

Here’s the basic problem: for a hundred years or so science fiction writers have been pretending that “the future” will involve interstellar travel by faster-than-light travel. Sure, there are notable exceptions who write stories set in near-future dystopias (e.g. much of Philip K. Dick’s work, all of William Gibson’s or Neal Stephenson’s work, or David Brin’s Earth and The Postman), but in large part we haven’t advanced beyond E. E. Doc Smith’s “60 parsecs/hour” via “inertialess drive”. Certainly SF in popular culture, which means TV and movies, is essentially a species of fantasy with spaceships and energy bolts instead of dragons and wizards. (Not that this kind of fantasy can’t be fun!) The flipside of the problem is that most science fiction ignores or negates the advances in technology in fields other than warp engineering. Star Trek features fabulous spaceships but no voicemail.

I’ve complained elsewhere that SF does a lousy job of envisioning a future that grapples with today’s problems. Where is a science fiction setting which addresses energy conservation the way the original Star Trek addressed racism? At least BSG had something to say about the War on Terror, but as a piece of speculative SF it was simply dreadful; we can’t make anything remotely resembling the Galactica, but we have firearms way beyond the crap they were using.

It doesn’t help that the few writers who have taken a stab in this direction, e.g. Pamela Sargent’s Venus series and Kim Stanley Robinson’s horribly overrated Mars trilogy, have written ridiculously overlong and generally dull doorstops.

I’d like to see a speculative science fiction setting (on network TV or in a decent series of novels, say) that is not near-future (e.g. Star Trek timeframe or beyond) and does not go beyond our Solar system. Ideally, it wouldn’t make stupid assumptions about, say, the rate at which we can realistically terraform other planets, but let’s not expect miracles. I’d also like to see a speculative science fiction setting that involves interstellar travel using some kind of plausible technology and deals with the implications rather than wishing them away.

I have two fairly solid ideas for settings that satisfy these constraints (I think I have an actually brilliant idea for the second); what I don’t have is a good idea for a plot. Maybe I’ll just steal something from Shakespeare.

On the impending death of broadcast TV…

Can guess the source of the screen image?
Can guess the source of the screen image?

According to this article in AllThingsD, Apple is pitching the idea of subscription-based TV via iTunes to content producers. I’m assuming the idea is “pay $30/month and see as much stuff on iTunes as you like”. I further assume that Apple’s business model will remain “we make money on hardware, you make money on content” (i.e. 30% for Apple to cover costs, 70% to … someone … for content). I’m certainly no expert, but from my random readings on the subject, Apple’s deals generally favor content-producers to a staggering degree compared to pretty much anyone else. (Amazon, purportedly, takes 70% of eBook revenues from the Kindle, which is quite a lot given the pretty much total lack of added value on their part. Similarly, Cable TV companies pay only a tiny fraction of subscriber fees to content producers.)

The main thing preventing iTunes from being the best deal for TV as things stand (aside from piracy, of course) is the lack of content. Only two-thirds of the TV shows I’d want to watch are available via iTunes, and many of those are available for free (with ads) from Hulu. The cost of buying all the TV shows I’d like to watch and/or buy each month (that aren’t available for free on Hulu or elsewhere) is significantly lower than the cost of digital cable (but not basic analog) if they were available.

$30/month is the same as the cost of 15 TV episodes on iTunes (or 10 HD episodes). A lot of people would do the arithmetic and figure — OK which episodes will I end up buying on DVD or similar? If you’re like me and end up buying about five seasons of TV per year ($150-250) and would be just as happy to have a digital copy (I, for one, would prefer to give up on DVDs which are fragile and easy to misplace) then you can figure in another $15-20/month. Who has time to watch 17-25 episodes of TV each month? TV via iTunes is already competitive with broadcast/cable/DVD in terms of price to viewers and, I suspect, return to content producers, but the question is whether everything you want to watch is available.

And the real problem is that if you want a good broadband connection in the US, you’re basically stuck with cable or DSL, both of which come bundled with TV in some way or another. So Apple has two problems — making more content available and overcoming the bundling of legacy TV content with broadband.

CNN on Hulu: Argh, the Stupidity… It Burns!

US TV Network Death Watch, Revisited

There’s been some talk about hulu delivering content via the iPhone lately, and I’ve been pretty much ignoring it, but my boss sent me a link to this piece on CNN, which is almost spectacular in its lack of accurate content. Just so you don’t need to read it, here are some key points of from the article.

  • Hulu has deals with all the major networks except CBS (wrong, it doesn’t have a deal with ABC) OK my stupidity burns too. The whole starting point for the article is that Disney and hulu cut a deal, abc.com’s content will go on hulu and Disney owns a chunk of hulu. Oops, my bad.
  • Hulu is hurting for traffic (wrong, it’s way ahead of ABC and CBS, for instance, on traffic; not ESPN though)
  • Hulu would need Apple’s approval to distribute video on the iPhone (wrong, it doesn’t need Apple’s approval to deliver content via the web, only via an app)

This is exactly why we need the mainstream media to report the news. Obviously bloggers aren’t professionals who can research facts and chase up key details. Obviously a mere blogger can’t log on to hulu and attempt to watch an ABC show to see if it works, or visit Alexa.com to find out what Hulu’s traffic is like, or visit developer.apple.com to figure out whether it’s possible to deliver content to the iPhone without needing Apple’s approval. It takes a media insider with contacts and professional journalism skills.

Aside: hulu’s Alexa ranking is particularly impressive when you consider that it’s not a site designed for maximizing page counts. A typical user will go there, look up a show, and then watch that show for 50 minutes. That’s maybe three or four page views in an hour compared with sites that break up a two page article into four page views.

The Real Issues

There are two definite issues Hulu would face in delivering content to the iPhone and two probable.

First, Hulu suffers from a really embarrassing technical problem: often, when you watch one of its shows, it gets to the place where an ad would go, and — miracle of miracles — it actually has an ad to show you, but, for some utterly unbelievable reason, it doesn’t show you the ad, but instead shows you 15s or 30s of black. This is “dead air” and is a fiasco. Getting this stuff right should not only be a top priority, it should be easy to do. Speaking as someone who put together a video advertising system for Valueclick Media in about three months with the help of two other people, it isn’t rocket science, and this is where they make their money. It’s like trying to create McDonalds and forgetting to make sure the cash registers work.

Second, Hulu doesn’t have any advertisers. (Well, it has so few it’s embarrassing.) If you watch hulu much at all, you’ve probably seen a ridiculous number of PSAs (public service announcements). These are ads produced by the Ad Council to be used as filler when no paying ad is available or to fulfill a public service requirement (e.g. TV stations are required to show a certain amount of stuff for the public good, which is how you occasionally see an ad against teen drunk driving in prime time). In short, Hulu’s problem isn’t traffic (page hits) but fill (ads to put in page hits). If Hulu were a magazine it would be thin and have very few ads in it, and there would be subscription cards offering lifetime subscriptions for only the cost of three issues at the news stand.

This leads to the first probable problem. Clearly, hulu has terrible cash flow (i.e. it’s bleeding money), and spending its cash reserves to get more traffic when it actually needs more fill only makes sense if its investors take a long view. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, maybe they’re on the fence. But convincing them is going to be an issue. (It’s possible that hulu’s investors are simply insane, since they don’t seem to be too incensed about the first issue mentioned.)

And the final probable problem is that hulu almost certainly has a contractual restriction against serving video content to a range of IP addresses which the IP owners (NBC and Fox) can change at whim. It’s quite possible that serving video to cell phones (Apple’s or anyone else’s) might require renegotiating their licensing deals. And we all know how reasonable and sane the networks are.

Note that the only technical issue here is (I would hope) pretty simple and actually applies to hulu’s existing business — delivering ads (when there are ads to deliver) should be the absolute top technical priority for a company whose bottom line is entirely dependent on doing so. Hulu needs to fix that whether or not it targets cell phones. Note that the second problem (convincing investors it’s worth doing) isn’t a consequence of it being hard to do — it’s perfectly possible to be sitting in a high tech company with money sitting in a giant pile “on the table” and have a perfectly good, inexpensive or free no-risk plan to get that pile of cash, and be unable to convince anyone that the company should do it. Believe me, I’ve been there. (“We wouldn’t want to cannibalize our other [non-existent] revenue streams.”)

So will hulu do it? No clue. But there’s no technical issue, and the only third-party dependency are hulu’s network partners. But we all know how reasonable and sane they are.

Technical Aside: isn’t Hulu flash-based?

To deliver video on iPhone without requiring Apple’s approval requires using a codec supported by the iPhone. Luckily, the iPhone supports the best video codec available (H264) and so does Flash. Now, I don’t know how Hulu’s video is currently encoded, so they might well have to re-encode everything for the iPhone (et al), but doing so is technically trivial and — really — you want lower video bandwitch (and resolution) for small devices anyway. It wouldn’t hurt hulu to be able to deliver a lower-bandwidth version of its content to non-mobile devices and laptops anyway, since a lot of folks (like me) are bandwidth constrained by wireless rather than their internet connection, and mobile users always are.

Having re-encoded video in an iPhone (or whatever) friendly format, the only remaining issue is inserting ads and providing a seamless experience. Luckily this is easily done using either Quicktime’s interactivity features (i.e. building a QuickTime shell around streamed content) or fairly simple JavaScript. If this is seriously an issue for hulu (or anyone else) I can knock something up for them in a week or so (from scratch so you don’t get sued by my former employer). Seriously, I’m cheap!

Post Script: Disney Deal

While hulu’s inability to place ads where they go is pitiful, abc.com’s was worse. Not only does — or should I say did? — abc.com require you to download a special “player” to watch their content (presumably Adobe AIR, which is to say Flash in a web page pretending to be an application), but the player would drop out of full-screen mode to play ads, occasionally hang on ads, and — like hulu — often show dead air instead of ads which, combined with hanging and disabling the UI during ads, was truly annoying. So if anyone had a good reason to go the hulu route it was Disney.

Now, given Jobs is Disney’s single largest shareholder, and Disney now owns a chunk of hulu, maybe hulu will get fixed.