Jim Louderback

October 26, 2011

The TV WAR of the Century

“There’s battle lines being drawn.
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.
Young people speaking their minds,
Getting so much resistance from behind…”

– Buffalo Springfield

tvwar2We’re in the middle of a yet another huge platform war for future of internet video and TV. There are four players with different and often opposing viewpoints, each with a shot at success. The story over the next three years will be which one will provide a winning service to enable viewing across every glowing rectangle in our lives – from the smallest smart phones to the biggest smart TV. Below are the four platforms, ranked by my own current likelihood of their success – along with some of the interesting quirks and challenges that remain.

GOOGLE: With Android, Google TV and YouTube, Google wants to be everywhere. Android already leads the smart phone race, with 550,000 devices activated every day. They’re trailing in the tablet space, although sales figures compared to the iPad are eerily similar to the early days of Android phones. And even though GoogleTV has been a flop, the company is angling to have Android become the dominant operating system for Smart TVs – with GoogleTV coming along for the ride. That market’s wide open, as Yahoo’s early efforts falter, and none of the other contenders (Flingo, Boxee) separating themselves from the pack. And with YouTube providing a unique and desirable library of content, Google has a lever to use to aid adoption. To date, however, Google has opted for Youtube ubiquity vs. scarcity – and I don’t see that changing.

Speaking of GoogleTV, the next version (due out real soon now) should make it easier to navigate, discover and consume video. They’ve already taken a big step forward by embracing the Android marketplace, and allowing a wide variety of apps to load-in and be useful. I’m hoping that they take less of a one-size-fits-all approach, and focus more on integrating the web video into the already-existing TV experience in most people’s homes. And they better make it work with a standard remote control – only the geeks want a full-on keyboard in their living room. Finally, they need to bring the cost down to $99 or less – and focus on AppleTV and Roku, not the “TV PC”.

APPLE: The company currently has a dominant position in tablets, and owns significant smartphone mindshare and marketshare. AppleTV to date has been disappointing. The company has sold millions of the set top box, but as the smarts move into the TV, Apple has yet to enter the market. There’s little doubt that it will, though. But video is different from music : We’ll listen to our favorite songs over and over again, but most videos are viewed once, shared and then forgotten. Apple needs a rental or subscription service to truly compete with the other three here.

AMAZON: The company has no smartphone or TV presence, but is poised to disrupt the tablet world this fall with the Kindle Fire. At less than half the price of other iPad and Android tablets – with a 10” model on the way in early 2012 – and with both a rental and streaming video service Amazon presents an interesting challenge to both Apple and Google. The company is clearly betting that the tablet will be the dominant video consumption device of the future, and is looking to lock its customers into Amazon Instant Video (rental) and Prime Instant Video (subscription service). Interestingly, while the company’s Kindle book-reading software works across competing devices, their VOD services do not support Apple IOS.

MICROSOFT: With 50 million XBOX 360s sitting in front of TV sets around the world, Microsoft has the potential to be a major player here. The company is working to build a single interface across its smart-phone, PC platforms – called Metro. They are also rolling out the Zune video services across all of those devices, along with the XBOX360 as well. The Xbox currently has the broadest collection of traditional TV sources, with broader support for TV Everywhere than the other platforms. Unfortunately Microsoft does not make web-original video available to the Xbox, which limits its usefulness. And the lack of a Windows-based tablet to rival the iPad or Android devices, along with the poor performance of Windows phones put Microsoft behind both Apple and Google. But the Xbox 360 is such a strong device, with such great market penetration, that it’s impossible to count the company out.

It’s early, but Google is in the lead, with Apple nipping at their heels. If the Kindle Fire is as big a success as I think, Amazon may well challenge for the lead. As an aside, I predict that the Fire will be the best selling electronics product this holiday season.

And Microsoft? Unless Windows 8 and the Windows phone become runaway successes, it will be difficult for them to turn their 360 installed base into a dominant platform. But that’s just my early handicapping – there’s a lot of race yet to be run.

September 10, 2011

How YouTube Wins in the Great Unbundling of Cable TV

Filed under: Commentary — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — Jim @ 9:52 am

stupid taxLast weekend I attended Vidcon, the annual gathering of YouTube celebrities, video bloggers, fans and others in this burgeoning online space. It was held across the street from CAA, but still worlds apart from the Hollywood glitz and glamour.

But it’s getting closer. Many of the early "vloggers" are now creating polished packages, rather than the slice-of-life vignettes that they built their audiences on. Hollywood agents and hangers-on were more prevalent, as a land-rush of sorts is underway for larger companies to sign up these new stars.

But for me, the most fascinating part of Vidcon was clarity around YouTube’s strategic direction, and what it wants to be when it grows up. I now firmly believe that YouTube is positioning itself to be a "super-bundle," sitting near the top of the emerging video hierarchy. Let me place them in context, though, by describing how I see the world evolving over the next three years.

The great unbundling
We’re in the early days of a great unbundling of services from transport. Over the past 30 years, TV services and the cables they run upon have been inextricably linked — you paid your cable bill, and got wire and channels together.

In the analog cable world that made sense. But now that most cable is digital, along with carrying two-way internet bits, the transport (which is basically just a collection of 1/0 bits) can finally be separated from the channels.

I know of at least three companies, and I assume there are many more, that are building what looks like a traditional cable TV bundle of local channels, super-nets like CNN and Lifetime and smaller channels like Current and Discovery. But rather than being locked into a single physical cable plant, these bundles will travel across the internet via cable modems and DSL. Soon you’ll be able to buy your TV bundle from, say, Comcast — even though you get your internet service from Time Warner or Verizon. And you’ll be able to watch any of those bundled channels on whatever internet service you happen to be sitting upon — whether it’s the hotel network in the Hanoi Hilton or your smartphone’s 4G service.

But that’s just an intermediate step. I see these unbundled cable services giving way to direct relationships between video content providers and customers. We’re seeing the beginnings of this sort of direct relationship today, most notably with HBO Go and CNN’s new "Everywhere" offering. Currently you need to have a paid relationship with a cable operator to use either of those two amazing services, but it’s only a small leap from the today’s programmer-controlled viewer authentication to tomorrow’s direct financial relationship. And that will give rise to a world with three distinct types of services, delivered over an internet/IP network, and with direct relationships with viewers: Super-Premium Channels, Super-Premium Bundles and Premium Independents.

Super Premium Channels
These single brand services provide libraries of unique and aggregated content to consumers for between $8 and $20 a month. We already have one Super-Premium Channel today — Netflix. And HBO is well positioned to be the second. After that, I’m not so sure. Fox’s recent eight-day exclusion was a cold face slap to Hulu, and unless Apple buys Hulu I don’t see its path to success. Showtime and Epix both have potential, but too much of their content has been licensed to Netflix. And like as not, consumers will only have pocketbook power to pay for one at a time.

Super-Premium Bundles
The problem with trying to re-create unbundled bundles of channels is that the content owners control too much power. These cable TV-like bundles will probably end up costing significantly more than a similar services from today’s cable operators. And that, I believe, will lead the big five networks to go direct, delivering their own super-bundles direct to consumers via the internet. Who are these big five? Comcast/NBC, Fox, Viacom, Time Warner and Disney. In the end, these are the companies that have built the biggest portfolios of individual channels and have built enough scale to appeal to men, women and children.

Take Disney, for example. It currently has a lock on kids with Disney and XD, it owns men with ESPN, and have at least a passable offering for women (and if it ends up buying Scripps Networks, they’ll really dominate here, with HGTV, Food and Travel). Disney is already building an extensive, direct to consumer video-based web destination that should equal or surpass what Time Warner’s CNN and HBO units have built. And the first pieces will begin to roll out early next year.

Premium Independents
So what about everyone else? These Super-Premium Bundles and Channels will be able to charge a monthly fee to consumers — everyone else will have to go free and direct via IP to compete. There will be very large businesses built here as well, but they will look much different than today’s independent cable networks. And as an aside, this is the opportunity my company, Revision3, is building for.

How will we watch?
In addition to the great unbundling, we’re also seeing the great "screenification." We have smartphones, smart computers, smart tablets and smart TVs. The only real difference is the size of the screen. Viewers increasingly want to watch their favorite shows on whichever smart screen is close at hand — and won’t settle for being limited to just the TV in the living room. And history shows that when technology creates an ability for consumers to get their media in new and more convenient ways, they figure out how to do it — legal or not (see Napster, BitTorrent).

So what about YouTube?
YouTube wants to be the sixth Super-Premium Bundle. The company already has a variety of premium content, and if the stories about the new channels they’re funding are true, they’ll have a plethora of premium offerings as well. The new "Cosmic Panda" interface is far more TV-like, and far more focused on helping viewers find a series or sequence of videos to watch — vs. the hunt-and-peck discovery model of the current site. Although the company will still be a vast repository of vacation videos and cats on skateboards, it really hopes to take its place as a legitimate premium service sitting alongside Viacom, Disney and the other three. Even better, it should remain free to all to boot.

How will we know if YouTube is successful? I’ll be keeping my eye on the NFL — when YouTube snaps up a package of football games in the 2013-2014 TV-rights renegotiation, then we’ll know that the company has truly arrived.

The 7 Biggest CEO Secrets Accidentally Revealed at AllThingsD Confab

Filed under: Commentary — Tags: , , , — Jim @ 9:46 am

What Google, Microsoft, Netflix and Nokia Said, and What They Really Meant

secretOne of my favorite movie scenes is in "Airplane," where a Black Power passenger attempts to communicate with a young stewardess, with very little luck. A little old lady steps up, asserts, "Excuse me Miss, I speak jive," and proceeds to translate between the two.

After four years of running internet TV network Revision3, like that lady I can confidently say that "I speak CEO." And that was a good thing this week, as I spent two days at the super-exclusive D9 conference, put on by All Things D editors Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. A parade of media and technology CEOs shared their thoughts on their company and the industry. Walt and Kara are superb interviewers, but for the most part the CEOs were well coached, delivered canned answers and evaded the tough questions.

But I can translate now. Here is a summary of what they said, and the secret words I heard:

Host Kara Swisher has a conversation with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings at the D9 Conference.

Asa Mathat/All Things Digital

Host Kara Swisher has a conversation with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings at the D9 Conference.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings: We’re not a producer of content, we’re just a distributor. We’re paying for first-run rights for "House of Cards," but only in countries where we stream today. And when it comes to carriers and MSOs? Our relationship with them is great — we may use up 30% of their bandwidth, but we haven’t yet asked for any kind of carriage fees. Plus we have no plans to offer bundles of channels, we’re really just a catch up service for older shows and movies.

Translation: We’re coming right after you, you old media suckers! We offer a better product for less, and in a few years you’ll be begging at our door. Die, die, die!

Hewlett Packard CEO Leo Apotheker: The somewhat accidental CEO laid out the company’s vision of using WebOS to create an end-to-end product ecosystem for both consumers and corporate America, just like Apple. Even though he plans to put the operating system he bought from Palm onto every HP PC and printer over $100, "we’re still great partners with Microsoft."

Translation: This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife. Well, how did I get here?

Microsoft Windows President Steven Sinofsky: He showed off a captivating demo of the next big release of Windows, codenamed Windows 8. The tiled interface borrowed heavily from the company’s Windows 7 phone OS, and the now defunct Zune media players. The new version seems bring the biggest changes to Windows since "95," and will run across tablets, phones and PCs.

Translation: We really screwed-up this whole transition to touch, tablets and smartphones, and this is our last chance. If we’re not successful here we’re going down in flames. Oh, and I really wish I could do a clean break with the past by moving 100% 64-bits, but the installed base won’t let me. Damn them! I hope we get this one out on time.

Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger: Iger came off as a savvy media mogul, trying to drag his huge enterprise into the digital age. He was complimentary of both Netflix and Hulu, calling the former "a platform that’s a rich place to distribute our content," and praising the latter’s user interface and overall experience. He also admitted that Disney made some mistakes, particularly around the Go.com portal. He also laid out plans for a relaunch of Disney.com that will focus mostly on video and gaming, but won’t start to emerge until later this year or early next year.

Translation: We’re really behind the eight-ball here. Our audience wants to stream our video directly and play social games like Farmville, and we can’t help them. If we don’t get our new service up soon, Netflix, Hulu, Zynga and Facebook are going to co-opt our relationship with our users, and ultimately devalue our brand. We better get this right, and soon. I hope our new Silicon Valley team is up to the task.

Stephen Elop, CEO Nokia: The new head of the Finnish phone company talked about the transition from their Symbian phone operating system to Windows 7 Mobile, and called the rumors that Microsoft is about to acquire the company "baseless." He teased Walt with a new phone, but refused to show it off. Elop couldn’t say when Nokia’s phones would be back in the U.S. in force. Over 45 minutes he said very little, offered few solutions, and spoke in platitudes and generalities.

Translation: Oh my God it’s worse than I thought. Our products are tired, our engineers overmatched and our customers are abandoning us. Thank God they still buy feature phones in many parts of the world today, but that’s not going to last long. This product transition is very important.

AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega: Most of this tech-savvy crowd were either current or previous AT&T mobile customers, and they were mad as hornets. De la Vega offered a panoply of excuses, blaming everything from the 8,000% increase in data use caused by the iPhone to a lack of cellphone towers. He even blamed AT&T’s abysmal San Francisco service on the local government’s unwillingness to let them swap in new antennas on their cell towers. He tried to justify his company’s proposed takeover of T-Mobile as good for users, good for competition and good for the U.S. And he ended up claiming his company was at least partly responsible for the iPhone’s design.

Translation: Shut UP! Your complaints matter less to me than a kitten fart in a blizzard. But secretly I admit it, we really do have a problem. Forget the customers, what we really need are T-Mobile’s cell towers and antenna sites in major markets, along with their wireless spectrum. We’ll never catch Verizon without them. Oh, and Steve Jobs, never forget that we designed much of the iPhone — and you took all the credit and threw us under the bus. I’ll get you — and your little dog too!

CEO Alibaba Group Jack Ma: Ma tried to paint himself as an upstanding member of the world internet economy, while talking about how China is really all about how to avoid the laws. He claimed that Taobao was substantially different from eBay, Alipay was nothing like PalPal, and Alicloud much, much different from Amazon’s S3. He laid out his three principles, which are to make your customers happy first, your employees next and finally your investors and shareholders. His advice to his largest shareholder, Yahoo: cut yourself into little pieces and focus on what you really believe.

Eric Schmidt at the D9 Conference.

Asa Mathat/All Things Digital

Eric Schmidt at the D9 Conference.

Translation: You Americans are so clueless! I’ve been ripping you guys off blind for years, and you never even noticed. Well now the gloves are off, and I’m gunning for you, Facebook, Amazon and eBay. Oh, and Carol Bartz, you’re not only annoying, you’re irrelevant too.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt: Schmidt touched on his relationship with Apple, new Google CEO Larry Page, the new wallet product that lives inside your phone, and called the YouTube "the best acquisition ever." He ended by saying he wanted to keep working at Google until after he was dead.

Translation: I’m scared, but for better or worse the inmates are now in charge of the asylum. Plus Apple’s iPhone is an overpriced piece of eye candy, the iPad is limited and Android is clearly better. So buy some of those Honeycomb tablets, gosh darn it.

December 30, 2009

The Worst 5 Mobile Apps of the Year!

Filed under: Commentary,Technology Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , — Jim @ 1:02 pm

2009 saw a land grab the likes of which we haven’t seen since the days of the railroads. Greedy software companies and websites tried to cash in on the cellphone app store hype, and released tens of thousands of new programs for the iPhone, Android and Blackberry.

Many of them were quite good, but some of them were atrocious. And the dreck wasn’t solely the province of no-name companies either. Our five worst applications for 2010 come from some household names. So here’s the list, and don’t miss the video from our expert team of reviewers at App Judgment, they saw thousands of programs this year, and spent hours fighting over who would make the worst of the year!

Photoshop.com Mobile for the IPhone: About the best thing you can say about this application was that it was free. Everything else was disappointing, from the interface to the functionality. There are far better photo apps for your phone, from a variety of lesser known companies. Photoshop may lead the world on the PC and the Mac, but it sucks on the iPhone.

Worst 5 list continues below

SEE WHY THESE FIVE APPS ARE SO DREADFUL!

Hold On! : Sure, many 2009 apps provided mindless entertainment. And that’s what this iPhone app aspired to do as well. But it failed utterly, completely and spectacularly – unless you’re prone to repeating stupifying tasks for days on-end to make the Guiness Book of World Records. The point of the program? Hold down an on-screen red dot for as long as you can. What a waste of .99.

Will You (Marry Me)? : Love was decidedly *not* in the air when we looked at this program The premise? Rather than buying a real ring, the iphone app simply displayed a jewel box opening up to reveal a digital diamond inside. One of our one reviewers even called it the anti-Viagra, and she was being too kind.

QIK: Let’s say you build up a fantastically successful company that lets anyone stream video from their cellphones to the internet, and through it to anyone in the world. Your first program runs on Nokia phones – nice to look at, but hardly world-beaters when it comes to apps and users. So you port it to the iPhone. You would expect it to, well, allow iPhone users to stream video to the world from wherever they are, wouldn’t you? We did. But it didn’t. Another “win” for AT&T’s ticky-tack 3G network. What a waste of pixels.

Shead Spreet: The name wasn’t the only mixed up part of this Android application. As smart phones became both business tools and entertainment devices, a wide variety of business-oriented programs launched. This one claimed to put a full-featured spreadsheet in your pocket, but failed miserably. With bad import features, poor data entry, and lame customization, it brought to mind the worst of Visicalc, Lotus 1-2-3, Quattro Pro and early Excel. Heck, even Windows Mobile worked better than this crapplet. Sometimes free really is too expensive.

It wasn’t all bad. There were tons of great apps released this year too. Tomorrow we’ll put up our list of the five best apps of the year, including a surprising number one!

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