Why Internet TV isn't mainstream yet: notes from the bleeding edge

Using hulu for about a year, and it generally rocks. Good replacement for cable/satellite television - I've been watching House, Fringe, 30 Rock, and The Colbert Report regularly. And the occasional SNL skit. The big NBC morning and news shows are chopped up into topical pieces so you can just watch the interesting bits. Hulu provides a news feed of  videos, although this is a very active feed so it kind of dominates the "all feeds" mode in most news readers. Still not sure if it's possible to subscribe to a feed-per-show. Very good audio/visual quality. Very annoying if your network goes down or slow. Nice to link to and embed videos in the blog, facebook. It's just neat to be able to link to a completely new part of one's life: the TV one watches. Hulu (and services like it) allow you to comment on it, criticize it, share it. Unfortunately some videos expire, making those URLs useless after a time, and meanwhile your commentary does not expire which creates a problem large enough to be noteworthy. It's particularly bad with hulu because they only warn about expiration when it's approaching. YouTube does not suffer from this problem (for example, consider the music video "Ooh Yeah" - it expired on hulu but is still live on youtube. OTOH YouTube audio and video quality is generally a lot worse than hulu, although this may be changingn with youtube's recent support for HD content). Really don't mind the Hulu commercials at all - they are short (15-30s) and, at least for TV episodes, they fit the narrative somehow (I remember feeling a bit awkward watching Firefly on DVD without commercials). It's cool to watch an hour show with 5 commercial breaks of only 15s each!

Ripped DVD, and video podcasts. Ripping a DVD is actually really nice if you have the hard-drive space, and if you have the time (HandBrake takes at least 2 hours to rip a movie). The biggest benefit of this method is reliability - the movie won't skip or stop if your network becomes slow or unreliable. It's also convenient: you can use the excellent "Front Row" application on the Mac (or the lesser Windows Media Center on Windows) to watch these movies, which is currently not possible with Flash-based streaming players like Hulu or YouTube (one tip when using HandBrake with Front Row: plop your movies into the iTunes Movie folder so that they appear in the Front Row menu.) I've only watched a few video podcasts - I downloaded some iPhone SDK videos, but was actually annoyed (and continue to be annoyed!) that they appear in Front Row movie menu along side "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets". The quality of these podcasts remind one that they are designed to be viewed on a video capable iPod, and not a large computer monitor. That said, there are some television shows made available in this format, such as the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. A small drawback is that the iTunes store is the go-to place for this kind of content, and I still don't feel comfortable surfing the web with the iTunes store. One reason I don't like the iTunes experience, for example, is that I can't easily link to podcasts!

Gaming. Gaming is more and more a viable alternative to passive TV watching. PC gaming is limited in the living room because of akward controls - the mouse/keyboard doesn't work on the couch. Ironically these are the controls that make PC games (and applications) so compelling. Modern consoles have many of the features of PCs (like wireless internet connectivity and web browsers) but the controls and interfaces are designed to work in the living room, a huge plus. The consoles are generally capable of movie and audio playback (the PS3 is a very good blu-ray player, for example). I don't have a console in my apartment, in part because I don't have the space but also because adding another box would increase the complexity of my simple setup considerably. (Of course if everything supported HDMI it would be a different story).

Cable, Satellite, and TiVo. In some ways Hulu is like a TiVo - in both cases you can only watch stuff that's already been broadcast. In both cases you watch fewer commercials. And indeed TiVo addresses several weaknesses of Hulu: first, it doesn't depend on strong network connectivity AND it caches the entire show, which ensures smooth playback. Second, the interface and controls are designed for the living room. Of course, TiVo is very expensive (the box, the TiVo service, and the cable service all cost money - the latest TiVo costs $600), but Hulu is essentially free. Also, TiVo box is not a generally useful PC and so is limited to doing one thing only. And it's proprietary nature means you pay a lot more for storage than with a PC. There are some HTPC projects out there that are frankly rather exciting, but aren't really ready for primetime.

Apple TV. I don't own it, but I think it's an interesting idea. Apple TV is a hybrid device: it distributes the PC "signal" to the living room (photos and music), but also serves as a signal source providing Hulu-like movies and TV shows - for a price. The ability to rent movies and TV shows with immediacy is an interesting idea, but one which obviously favors Apple's balance sheet. I think it's a bad proposition to spend $230 to give a company a turnstile in your living room; call me old-fashioned. It seems to me that the cable/TiVo solution is a better value, especially for those who watch a lot of TV. (Admittedly, most cable companies also put a turnstyle in your living room with Pay-Per-View!)

[Update: what is boxee? I don't know but I've signed up for the alpha]

No comments: