Thursday, July 19, 2007

For the Love of Orb (and Slingbox, Too!)

This is a very long piece on media liberation otherwise known as easy media portability. This is more rough (and mostly completely unedited) thinking on these topics. What's covered: some of the barriers in general, a brief Orb vs. Slingbox comparison, more 'put your TV on your iPod', and some "Fear of Apple".

There are some Slingbox lovers out there. Some Orb lovers too. There aren't enough of us though. In both cases I think the barrier is currently too steep to reach mass adopter status and not just because either of the products are particularly hard to use, or represent unsolvable technological challenges, but instead because of how people think about stuff and the barriers involved with changing behavior.

The barriers are so hard. For instance, at least the last time I checked, most of the HDTVs hadn't wound up actually hooked up to any type of a set top box (STB) that could provide an HD signal. So you're talking about something were even when someone probably paid more than $1000, the people who bought it didn't wind up ordering the thing from their cable or satellite provider that would actually utilize fully what they just paid for. We can be very strange people.

This challenge may make you scratch your head. It might make you think "nah", but look it up. I think the cable and satellite companies have both stepped up in marketing their HD offerings, so this is changing now. But as of last year, MOST HDTVs were not hooked up to any HD content.

Most "Microsoft Media Center PCs" don't even likely wind up ever getting used as a Media Center PC. Many people buy laptops and desktops without even knowing (or knowing and not caring) that it's a Media Center PC. The first Media Center machine I bought was accidental. I had no idea it was a media center PC until I'd unboxed it and saw it had a TV tuner card built in. Since I had cable already in that room for Internet access, I split the cable and checked it out. I liked it. Then I started experimenting with ORB, and I liked it even more. But I do still have some geeky instincts (I thought I'd lost it for a while), and I like playing around with media portability and figuring out how to get it to work. Most people don't operate like that and never will.

This is even more complex than the traditional challenge of marketing something. Traditional models would be more like AOL and Quicken coming bundled on the Computer. Usually most people ignore most of this stuff too, however, AOL and Quicken can do something that doesn't make any sense for Microsoft to do with the Media Center PCs. AOL and Quicken can send you a post card (or a new shiny CD in the case of AOL) and this marketing makes sense, because if you act on it, these guys know what happens: they get paid.

Microsoft would have gotten more attention if they charged $9.95 a month to actually make the media center usable as a DVR. If it would have charged for the program Guide like TIVO does, way more people would've heard about it because if that would have happened, MSFT would have spent some money on sending people who bought Media Center PCs a postcard. On the other hand, I'm glad they didn't, because having a couple of lifetime program guides with Tivo, I would have probably not tried the Media Center's DVR out.. Similarly, I'm glad that ORB didn't ever charge me a fee.

On the other hand these are the exact same reasons that nobody has really heard of ORB or the Microsoft Media Center. I don't know how important it is for Microsoft to be perceived at the forefront of this or whether it should be important to Microsoft. I conclude that for ORB, its decision is it would rather wait for the right time than burn tens of millions of dollars in marketing as Slingbox must do.

ORB vs. Slingbox

Media Liberation is the concept that if I somehow paid for media already and can store it for my own personal use legally, I ought to be able to have access to it wherever I am.

I have gotten questions from more than one person on why I love ORB so much more than Slingbox. If you already have a TIVO and your goal is to be able to watch live or recorded tv from some remote location, I love Slingbox as much as I love ORB. You want to watch on a laptop, even some phones (sadly, not the iPhone) or any computer connected to the Internet (again, sadly no iPhones), I don't have a problem with Slingbox, though if you want it to work on your Sony PSP, you're better off going with Sony's Location Free Player or whatever they have decided to call this product these days (it's basically a Slingbox made by Sony).

There are two reasons I personally prefer ORB to Slingbox. One, it allows me to fully conceptualize in every way the notion of a media server. Secondly, while Slingbox and its ilk will give me easy remote access to live or recorded tv, I have much more than that in my digital media library. All my songs, pretty much any picture I've ever taken and decided to keep since 1997, live and recorded television, and movies and other DVD-style compliations.

Slingbox only lets me get at a piece of that, but I'd say on an application specific basis, especially if you are already set up with a DVR and all that you want to do is get remote access to live and recorded TV. Slingbox is the not only the path of least resistance, unless you already have a TV tuner card and a version of Microsoft Windows that supports Media Center, Slingbox is cheaper.

As it happened, I did already have a Media Center PC, so I played around with it. While I don't love (or hate) the Media Center interface, I do find the version in Vista an improvement, but in terms of remote access, I do love ORB, because unlike Slingbox, it puts the concept in my head of "put all the stuff I paid for here" and get it whenever/wherever I want. I am very enamored with this concept, and in the end whether content is all physically in one place or whether it's virtually distributed, as long as I can ultimately get to it all easily through one interface, I'll be satisfied. For me, ORB is the thing that most enables the "future vision". But there are yet more barriers than "what's ORB's business model going to be exactly?" I honestly don't know currently and "hope Yahoo lightening strikes twice and Orb.Com becomes the Broadcast.Com of the 2000s!" But there are bigger barriers with the consumers than Orb's business model.

Nobody Really Cares Yet, Including Apple

But for now, while WiFi isn't really free and much should Apple care yet?

In theory, the widescreen iPhone (and ultimately stand alone iPod) will be the most popular portable media device ever. But it doesn't easily support streaming presently, I will not be shocked if Apple's implementation of Macromedia's FLASH player for the iPhone still blocks me from streaming live TV. Fortunately for Apple, I was already braced because of Sony. Sony, whose PSP did ultimately get around to supporting FLASH, still managed to block streaming protocols. I can stream to my PSP, but only via additional hardware: Sony's location Free Player, or by a convoluted process where I use the PSP to connect with my Playstation 3 at home, and then use the Playstation 3's web browser to access ORB.

While I realize there is some interest in this, especially among enthusiasts and early adopters, for most people the last paragraph just causes their eyes to roll into the back of their heads. We're clearly still in the early adopter stage with some of this stuff and as a result, interoperability is a big issue that causes too much complexity and costs too much. This is a big barrier.

Ubiquitous access to more or less fast Internet. With the iPhone as it is, if Wifi isn't an option, neither is streaming. While ORB can detect your network speed and size the file appropriately, even if the iPhone currently supported streaming seamlessly, I believe because the Edge network is so slow, the results would be poor. However, I'll be shocked if the next generation of iPhone doesn't come with access to AT&T's faster network and on that network, you could get watchable video on a regular basis.

One barrier aside from interoperability and cost is that none of the installed base of the most popular portable media player currently available (iPhone/iPod) can stream anything. So my vision of all this is still at least a couple of generations more of iPods. And you can be sure the very next generation will include a widescreen/touch screen model. Whether that generation has WiFi is the $64,000 question.

The sooner it does, the sooner my vision will start to take root, and that vision is:

Put Your TV on your iPhone/iPod

Or portable media player of your choice. The one big mistake I think Apple made with the video iPod was not loading the iPods with some video content so that people could get accustomed to the notion of portable video. I did some experiments with loading up iPods and loaning them to people. Anyone I could get to use it, seemed to like it quite a bit. But not everyone was interested in trying it out. But the people who did like it and there were several, wished it was easy to get stuff off their DVRs and onto their iPods and iPhones.

For most people, it's way too hard. I have to be honest, it's often way too hard from me, and I confess on occasion I have downloaded files off the internet. I rationalize the ethics like this: the process of getting it from my DVR to my portable device is lousy. So lousy that it's easier and faster to download it. I can't buy a service to do this. I can't get it from Comcast, Apple*, Tivo, Microsoft or anybody. Maybe Facebook will offer it for $8.95 a month and then I can stand in the "I love Facebook" line like everyone else around here.

*You can subscribe to certain TV shows via iTunes and download them already in iPod format. However, these files are optimized for your TV and will playback in DVD quality should you happen to have an AppleTV, they are not optimized for the small screen and small hard drive and they aren't optimized for cramming as much video content that looks great as you possibly can. Ultimately, this will be resolved either via bigger and bigger flash drives to the point where it wouldn't matter to most people, or Apple and others will figure out how to let the software automatically optimize the content

some stuff you can do with the Zune (though I think it might be through a 3rd party and not Microsoft) is set up to easily transfer shows you have recorded to the Zune. But the Zune as it exists presently is dead, totally killed off by the iPhone and future generations of iPods. If Microsoft doesn't get it yet, they will soon. Form factor matters and an iPhone fits in any pocket you have way better than a Zune. While Sony is taking its sweet time with the Playstation Portable 2, it's at least making the PSP 1 thinner.

I made an offhand comment to a friend that I thought the iPhone form factor wins, even ultimately for gaming, but I'm not so sure. While I don't get much increased value watching video on the PSP's bigger screen (it's at least a 3rd bigger than the iPhone's), I haven't played Tiger Woods Golf on the smaller screen. Whether they can get the PSP more iPhone-esque in stature, I don't know but Sony is definitely on to slimming the device, and Microsoft will get there with Zune.

Fear of Apple: Who Will be its Main Competition?

I'm fearful that Apple is locking me in to an all Apple world. It's not a conspiracy, and I don't think I am being paranoid. Apple figured out how to design and manufacture really good portable media players. Now they baked in the phone and the Web browser and the integration is very cool. And because I have to have a phone anyway, and loved and heavily used an iPod already, and love reading stuff on the Web, the integration works out very cool, but that it winds up being such a great "portable DVD" replacement for me personally is more than just icing on the cake.

Apple isn't exactly notorious for being an open platform, and with the iPhone I am already forced into using iTunes for syncing, they probably will ultimately lock me in because as my library is increasingly in iTunes, if Apple can give me a DVR that can then iTunes can figure out how to optimize it for the iPhone and transfer it and charge me for it, that would currently be my path of least resistance.

I conceptually hate the notion of being locked into Apple's products, but as long as its products are actually better my hatred will remain merely conceptual.

Because of "Facebook lovin'", I saw the story where Facebook had acquired a company called Parakey which is run by the people who created the Firefox web browser software and is something called a Web Operating System (WebOS, I think is the correct Jargon). I am too far out of the technology loop to fully grasp what this means, but I think what it means is that someone could manufacture a device with a small video screen (say 3.5") and some flash storage and wifi and have it boot up to a web browser that can also serve as a file access interface (so you can store and then access files on the device for playback). If you threw in a cool touch screen interface and could sell it for around ~$300-$349 and theoretically make some money, I think there's an opportunity – to become the anti-Apple, and build this device to support anything and everything. All file formats, and whatever streams. Make it so the device doesn't care whether you have an Orb or a Slingbox, then market it like crazy to people with Slingbox, ORB, PSP, etc.

Sure, theoretically Apple could just open up to all of that too, though I can't imagine Apple feels like it needs to worry about it right now one way or the other. I think the next generation of AppleTV will give a pretty good signal of what Apple is in a hurry to deal with. If it doesn't change much over the previous model other than some of the specs and it doesn't add-in DVR capabilities of any kind, Apple isn't in a big hurry. I think it may still actually be too early for Apple to care. But I expect the next generation of widescreen iPods will be a big hit, and hopefully that will spur the movement.

I believe the bigger touch screen is the huge leap for the iPod and for the top of the line model, I do not expect the form factor or overall design will change from that version forward very much. They'll have to suck you into the new models with "more flash storage" and "faster WiFi" and "seamless Apple TV integration".

For the average person, the best answer is probably to just wait until Comcast and Apple, Tivo, Orb and who knows, Facebook and Pownce are offering you easier ways to deal with your portable media. By the time you're seeing more than one offer to take your money in return for making your life simpler, the hardware options will all be very much better than they are today and it should be reasonably easy to put your TV on your iPod.

Whether that's all 5, 10 or more years away, I don't know. Hoping that it's 5…

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