Monday, July 25

My Dream TV Setup and the Present Nightmare

I'm not a huge TV or movie watcher, but I would like to do the following:
  1. hang a flat panel HD TV on my wall
  2. connect it wirelessly to broadband internet so the only cable I need is the TV power cord
  3. use my smartphone or laptop as my remote
  4. and (here's the hard part) watch all the world's video content (in full HD resolution when available), whenever I want for a reasonable price.
That's my seemingly simple (in terms of the necessary technology) TV dream.

Now, let me introduce you to the present state, which amounts to a nightmare of massive fragmentation.

TV Hell

Not surprisingly given the money at stake, nearly every major tech firm, media conglomerate, TV manufacturer, along with a number of innovative startups, are angling for a piece (or more often control) of the connected TV market. The result is today's dizzying array of incompatibile and walled off offerings, such as:
  • Content sources: iTunes,  Bravia Internet, Hulu, SeeSaw, Plex, Netflix, Freeview, LoveFilm, etc.
  • Wireless technologies: WHDI, WiDI, WirelessHD, Wireless USB, WiGig (see Wired's article for more on this topic)
  • Devices: separate boxes like Apple TV, Boxee, Revue, Roku, PS3, Xbox, and TVs like LG's Smart TV and Google TV which have features built into the TV itself
The net-net of this media-tech cacophony is consumer confusion and painfully slow progress on delivering a complete wireless HDTV solution.

The failure is not for lack of effort. Google TV tried to bring it all together and promptly had the door slammed in its face by the major U.S. television networks. Scrappy startups like Boxee and Plex have developed innovative offerings, but they lack the heft at present to deliver the goods. On the content side, Hulu is great, but it engages in an extensive game of cat and mouse to keep users from outside the U.S. and Canada from accessing the site. The same is true of the BBC's iPlayer for users outside the UK. Apple has a lot to offer, but Apple TV can't do full HD and the iTunes pricing model makes it significantly more expensive than Netflix. Lovefilm doesn't stream content in HD, only standard definition at present.

It is Netflix, with its large catalogue of streaming HD content, that is perhaps the best of the lot. But it is only available in North America at present and (worse) the company is still beholden to content owners which means it can't control prices (e.g., the recent unpopular price increase).

In short, many have tried but everyone including some of the most creative and powerful companies in the world have failed to deliver wireless, on-demand HD TV.

Keeping the Dream

For now the Big Boys have all decided that, rather than sharing with other kids in the sandbox they're going to try to keep their toys to themselves. But what they fail to realise is that on demand, HD, wireless, anywhere, any device TV is coming whether content owners (Hollywood) like it or not. Hollywood can either get out in front of this tsunami and try to ride the wave of the future, or it will get crushed by it.

The future of TV will look something like Spotify or Netflix, meaning it will be:
  • On demand
  • HD
  • With a comprehensive library of content
  • And reasonably priced for all you can watch
When? The wireless and smart device technology exists right now, so it's all about content licensing. It was hoped that 2011 would be the breakthrough year for connected TV, but it's July and I don't see it happening.

Hollywood and content owners are fighting tooth-and-nail to maintain the lucrative status quo for another season. Freeview, talk of Netflix international expansion, and perhaps other important steps are in store for 2012, so here's to hoping we'll see major advances in wireless HD TV next year.

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