This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY.
If you’re in the tech industry, or have someone living with you who’s tech-savvy, you may already be enjoying Apple TV, Slingbox, or similar devices and services that offer multi-platform access to a variety of media when you want it, where you want it. You may also wonder why such terrific and affordable platforms aren’t more widely used.
I know I feel that way about Apple TV. And Michael Wheeler, vice president of IP network for NTT America, who I interviewed for this story, and Hunter Newby, the CEO of Allied Fiber and author of the VoIPeering column for this magazine (see his July column on the subject), have similar sentiments about Slingbox.
Yet, for whatever reason, Apple and Sling Media Inc., at least initially, didn’t put much effort into marketing these offers. As a result, the rest of the world may end up turning to companies like AT&T, EchoStar’s DISH Network, Google (News - Alert) and Verizon to empower them to enjoy and access content like music and videos across multiple devices, including computers, smartphones and televisions.
Digging on Apple TV and Slingbox
As I wrote in a recent posting on TMCnet, at a time when the telcos and cablecos were just talking about on-demand TV and three-screen strategies, Apple TV allowed my family and whoever else was willing to shell out a few hundred bucks to order movies (both standard- and high-definition) on demand, access YouTube, look at photos, and play iTunes music and videos on the TV – and control it all with either an Apple TV remote control; a Mac computer; or an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. We bought Apple TV several years ago and still love the over-the-top service, which we use pretty much every day.
Wheeler of NTT America, meanwhile, is among the satisfied customers of Slingbox, which he says is “one of the more interesting three-screen [efforts].” He frequently travels for business, and Slingbox allows him to access TV programming remotely using his laptop or cell phone.
“I have my Slingbox attached to my TiVO at home, so time-shifted watching becomes part of that conversation fairly quickly, whether it’s video on demand or just doing the recording yourself using a DVR experience,” he says. “You can access those things remotely, particularly remotely from around the world, and it’s still a pretty positive experience when you’re viewing it.”
Slingbox is a compelling application that can allow you to watch a sports match, a movie or other content while you’re waiting at the airport for a flight, or at a hotel in Asia unable to sleep because of the time difference, he says.
Nonetheless, neither Apple TV nor Slingbox have yet to reach critical mass, so both are effectively blips on the three-screen landscape at this point. That could soon change, however.
Earlier this summer rumors circulated that Apple was planning an upgrade of Apple TV that would involve dropping the price to just $99 (it sells for $229 today), and ditching the current set-top box form factor and instead relying on the cloud for storage and a smaller device at the customer premises. But this speculation didn’t play out as expected, as some reports indicated the unveiling of this revised product would take place at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in early June at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. That didn’t happen.
However, there may still be hope. Another recent article, this one from TechNewsDaily, quotes Piper Jaffray senior research analyst Gene Munster saying: "Apple will produce a TV that includes everything: Wi-Fi, memory storage, TiVo, Airport Extreme, Blu-ray, all built-in. Basically, you plug in your TV and everything is there. When we start hearing things about Apple projects, it's usually about three years away. We've been hearing about this for about a year now, so we think an Apple-branded TV is only two years away."
(Apple didn’t return INTERNET TELEPHONY’s call seeking comment.)
In the same piece, Munster notes that Apple CEO Steve Jobs recently commented on Apple TV, saying: "No one wants to buy a box. Ask TiVo, ask Roku, ask us... ask Google in a few months. The only way that's going to change is if you tear up the set-top box, give it a new UI, and get it in front of consumers in a way they're going to want it. The TV is going to lose in our eyes until there is a better go-to-market strategy... otherwise you're just making another TiVo."
DISHing Up Google TV and Project Canvas
Meanwhile, Sling Media and its parent, EchoStar Corp., and sister company DISH Networks have made some recent moves to expand their horizons.
DISH Network, EchoStar’s DBS endeavor, in January announced a service called TV Everywhere that leverages technology from both Apple and Sling Media. The complete solution was expected to become available in the second quarter, which had yet to wind up at press time.
TV Everywhere from DISH Network provides customers with access to all their live and recorded programming on any connected laptop or mobile device anywhere in the world. The capability relies on the TV Everywhere Adapter; the ViP 922; the new DISH Network WiFi HD Monitor; and the DISH Remote Access App. The DISH Remote Access App also offers satellite TV customers the ability to transform an iPhone or iPod touch into a remote control for televisions connected to compatible DISH Network receivers.
Then, in late June, Sling Media announced the availability of its SlingPlayer Mobile application for Android smartphones. The application, which sells for $29.99, gives Android phone users easy access to their home TV experience anywhere they have mobile phone or Wi-Fi internet access.
That, of course, came a month after Google, the creator of the Android, joined forces with DISH and other partners to announce Google TV. The Google TV effort, based on Android and Chrome technologies, aims to merge traditional TV programming with the huge and varied array of content on the Web, and to allow users of the service to use a single interface to search for all of the above.
DISH and Google have been testing the service for more than a year with 400 DISH Network and Google users. The service, in which Adobe, Best Buy, Intel, Logitech and Sony, also are involved, is set to go commercial in the late fall.
Meanwhile, across the pond, a consortium called Project Canvas has taken shape, notes Martyn Davies, video marketing manager at Dialogic (News - Alert), which sells a video gateway called the Vision 1000. In what some see as a competitor to the coming Google TV, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five and a couple of ISPs have come together on the effort, which in June was approved by the BBC Trust, the governing body of the BBC.
As Davies of Dialogic notes, BBC was early to the market with over-the-top TV with its BBC iPlayer, which in three years went from zero to driving 20 percent of the U.K.’s video traffic. The player enables users that miss a TV program to watch it later over the Internet via a computer or mobile phone. Project Canvas now aims to apply this model to video on demand and IPTV. The goal is reportedly to deliver a standardized client this fall that would bring TV programming to mobile phones, PCs and Ethernet-connected TVs.
It should come as no surprise that the cable TV industry, too, is talking about three-screen strategies and the ability to deliver TV anywhere. A recent media report quoted Time Warner (News - Alert) Cable CFO John Martin as saying that he "wouldn't be surprised" if 50 million homes could access some form of these services within the next 12 months.
Talking with the Telcos
However, it may be the telcos – in an effort to differentiate their relatively new TV services in a largely saturated market – that have been pushing the three-screen messaging the longest and the loudest. Of course, these strategies have until recently been separate TV, broadband/computer and mobile/cellular service strategies running on parallel tracks. But, with video now taking center stage for a variety of applications, their multiscreen strategies are now starting to come together.
For example, last spring, Verizon introduced the capability for customers of its fiber-to-the-home-based FiOS services to use select Verizon Wireless cell phones to program their DVRs remotely.
More recently, AT&T talked about its multi-screen strategy around the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, for which it provided video and other content through its U-verse TV (including the ability to watch up to four ESPN channels featuring soccer at the same time) and Online services as well as to AT&T mobile phones.
“AT&T customers will have 64 live ESPN games available live on all three screens: the TV, PC and mobile device. We’ll have up to two channels of live matches available on mobile, U-verse TV customers will be able to interact with and follow their favorite teams with our innovative 2010 FIFA World Cup app, and live coverage of all matches and exclusive bonus content is available for AT&T High Speed Internet customers,” says Dan York, president of content at AT&T.
Of course, delivering content over multiple devices requires some processing of that video to ensure it is efficiently and properly formatted for the targeted endpoints. Companies like RGB Networks are addressing that challenge. In fact, in late June the network video processing company brought RipCode Inc. in the fold. RipCode, now part of RGB, was a privately held developer of solutions for mobile IP video. RGB is incorporating RipCode’s technology into its Video Multiprocessing Gateway (News - Alert) to enable video service providers to cost-effectively deliver services to their subscribers on TVs, PCs and mobile devices.
“As video service providers consolidate their head-ends and build converged delivery networks, they require highly reliable IP video solutions that scale efficiently across all subscriber devices,” notes Jef Graham, CEO of RGB Networks. “With the integration of RipCode’s mobile delivery technology into our modular, high-density Video Multiprocessing Gateway, RGB can offer a unified content delivery solution for TV, PCs and mobile in a scalable, carrier-class platform. We are already seeing tremendous interest in our multi-function VMG, and this bold move quickly takes our capabilities to the next level, providing a unique solution that directly satisfies our customers’ requirements for three-screen delivery.”
Juniper in April announced an acquisition along similar lines with its purchase of Ankeena. The latter company sold a Media Flow Director, which looks at available bandwidth and other factors to ensure a good user experience related to video or other rich media, regardless of the user endpoint.
Of course, while AT&T is enabling users to watch some of the same content over various screens, there doesn’t seem to be any real integration of the content itself from a user standpoint. However, many in the industry have been talking for some time about a future in which a user could start watching a program on his cell phone, for example, and then turn on his TV or computer to pick up the same program where it left off.
In fact, Alcatel Lucent at CTIA (News - Alert) and IPTV World Forum in late March announced a solution that would enable service providers to do exactly that, notes Tom Fuerst, the company’s senior director of multimedia solutions marketing. The product is called Multi-screen Video Solution, and it gives people access to live and time-shifted TV from any device. It also has a video bookmarking capability, so you can watch part of a show on one device and then switch, midstream, to another endpoint. Additionally, the solution can offer the user recommendations for content, a feature that Fuerst says service providers like the telcos are uniquely positioned to provide.
A feature of MVS called Mobile Smart Loading can preload a user’s smartphone with content to which he or she has subscribed. That content might involve grabbing a show from the user’s home DVR. But rather than bogging down the network and the handset at an inopportune time, the feature will download the content when there’s ample bandwidth on the mobile network, possibly at night, so the handset is ready to go the next day.
“Alcatel-Lucent’s Multimedia Solutions and strategy help service providers leverage their existing assets in creative ways to introduce an entirely new set of services and associated revenue – a great example of our application enablement vision in action. These solutions build on our strengths in IPTV, mobility and content delivery to bring our customers – and their subscribers – a consistent multimedia experience on every screen,” says Kenneth Frank, president of Alcatel-Lucent’s Solutions activities. “We are creating new opportunities for everyone in the digital media value chain by providing a foundation on which new multimedia services and content can be offered to consumers quickly and easily, based on market demand.”
Edited by Stefania Viscusi