iPad: Netflix App, Musings, & Wishes

I read that Netflix is coming to the iPad. Given that Adobe already has a widget for turning Flash applets into iPhone apps, there’s no reason not to expect Hulu et al to be able to provide iPad apps for their content as well.

So, given that we’ll almost certainly have Netflix, and most likely Hulu working on the iPad, and that many newspaper sites will simply switch to HTML5 / H264 — what’s missing? Nothing of note, it seems.

The interesting thing is that by allowing Adobe Flash apps in via the App Store but not via the web, Apple makes it easier for developers — of casual games for example — to monetize their products while improving the user experience. Unless you like being deluged with butt ugly ads while playing online games.

It looks like the iPad may be a very complete media consumption device pretty much on day one. What I’d really like to see for the iPad are:

  1. A clamshell case that effectively turns the iPad into a laptop with keyboard. The ideal design would probably have a pass-through dock connector, stereo speakers, USB slot, SD slot, and extra battery power.
  2. A paint program — I know Brushes was demoed on stage at the launch (I own the iPhone version), but despite its high-profile user, I find it pretty poorly designed and would love to see major improvements in its UI or some real competition.
  3. A image editor (i.e. Photoshop-like program). The obvious candidate here would be a port of Acorn since the program is already 100% cocoa, and the UI is almost iPad ready. (Then again, the Pixelmator team has been really quiet for a long time, notwithstanding vacations.)
  4. A 3d sketch modeler (like Teddy or Curvy). The iPad would be perfect for this kind of 3d “sketching”. (I’m actually tempted to have a shot at writing such a tool.)
  5. Coda or something similar — i.e. a combination programmers’ editor and FTP client (ideally with some kind of simple image editing functionality so you don’t need to perform acrobatics to crop or scale images, etc.) — but thenĀ projects like Bespin would allow you to integrate basic editing tools into your websites.

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.

It’s the end of the (TV) world as we know it, and I feel fine

For ten years, I’ve been saying to friends and anyone else who is sufficiently immune to boredom that network TV was headed the way of commercial radio, and predicting it would be all over in five years. I was obviously at least five years ahead of myself. The proverbial fat lady hasn’t sung, but I believe that the television writers’ strike will be looked back on as marking the beginning of the end, a watershed moment.

Network (and indeed “standard cable”) television is dead to me, and I suspect many others. At its last gasp, it produced some of its best work ever — amazingly original television shows like Lost (season one, at least), and brilliantly executed retreads of old concepts such as Monk and Battlestar Galactica. Many television critics observed that television was entering a golden era, just as its audience began to disappear. And probably for just that reason. As network executives flailed about trying to figure out how to get ratings, it must have occurred to some that perhaps actual good writing might do the trick, and for a remarkable number of shows, it did.

But, just as a gas flame burns brightest when its supply is cut off, television has flamed out. The brilliant new shows have exploded as their hail mary concepts have been forced back into the tired “it must last five seasons of twenty-two episodes” formulae, and the writers and producers have leapt at each others’ throats in some kind of insane suicide pact. It’s worth noting that two of the best recent shows — Lost and Galactica — both nearly lost it with padded episodes intended to stretch their arcs to five seasons, but then made mid-course corrections and then cut their arcs to four seasons.

The underlying problem is completely obvious and perfectly analogous to the music downloading issue.

First of all, people want to watch good shows, and they prefer not to see ad breaks. They’re actually quite happy to pay for the shows without the ads — witness the huge numbers of TV shows selling on DVD. And they’re going to turn out to be quite happy to see “TV” shows which never get shown on TV (or perhaps only appear on TV as reruns — the way movies do).

Second, commercial television is an extremely inefficient mechanism for delivering content that people want to the people who want the content, just as it is an extremely inefficient mechanism for delivering relevant ads. Guess what? The exact same issues apply to commercial radio, radio advertising, and music. Premium cable is even worse, incidentally. It’s cheaper and more satisfying to watch the Sopranos, say, all at once on DVD than be strung out waiting for it to show in installments as HBO tries to tease out subscriptions.

How is this playing out?

Well, folks are buying the stuff they want direct from the source (or, as direct as they can), and ignoring the middleman. In this case it means buying movies and TV shows on DVD or from iTunes and ignoring commercial TV … in ever greater numbers. And the writers’/producers’ mutually assured destruction is just hastening the end.

Futurama has just gotten a new “season” purely driven by DVD sales.

I’m surprised that Stargate SG-1 didn’t continue as a pure DVD/iTunes venture, but I suspect that was more a consequence of writers’ fatigue than economics. Don’t be surprised if, say, Firefly comes back as a DVD/download-first, see it repeated on TV later, production. The economics aren’t incredibly difficult to calculate. Suppose that a studio gets 50% of iTunes sales, a show like LOST might cost $3M per episode to make and (currently) only make $250,000 from iTunes sales alone. But imagine if LOST were produced a bit leaner (e.g. it were made in Canada or Australia), had a rabid fanbase (OK, that doesn’t stretch your imagination much), and were coming out on iTunes exclusively one week before it was shown on TV.

This is speculation, but it seems pretty inevitable to me.

I’m currently watching seasons one to three of The Wire on DVD. This is a brilliant show that could never be shown on US commercial TV, doesn’t fit the network formats at all (1h episodes, profanity, nudity, violence, and 12 episodes per season).

The commercial television networks don’t have a big fork in their asses just yet, but their asses are probably tingling in anticipation.