Hype.tv

It’s a funny idea: ditch cable and/or satellite, use AppleTV instead. Steve Rubel goes wild again: At home I have a Microsoft Xbox 360 (they’re one of our clients) and an Apple TV connected to my Sony HDTV. The content I download off the Internet for the two set top boxes has definitely eaten into my time with cable. The latter cannot be beat for live news and sports – yet.

But is this scenario really ready for prime time? And, if not yet: when? Serving 110 Million US tv households their daily dose of tv content via the Internet isn’t even a pipe dream – it’s actually a nightmare for the guys running the pipes. Just a small handul of people are currently heavy users of Bittorrent. But the p2p brethern is already clogging up 60 percent of the net (sez Gartner). Currently, you cannot scale net video to mass markets (not to mention HD deliveries). And don’t anybody YouTube me now. According to Compete, this February the top 20 videohosters served round about 260 million web videos. Which is about 2.5 videos per householf per month. Meaning an average viewing time of roughly five minutes. Per month. TV is currently eating of 4.5 hours per person and day. So puh-lease: yes, it’s exciting. And yes: it’s great to be ahead of the curve. But the debroadcastization of the tv world won’t happen any time soon.

Micro Persuasion: Between All-You-Can-Eat and A-La-Carte TV

The Bandwith Blob

Most telcos agree: the future of TV isn’t about broadcasting anymore. It’s on demand, IPTV, server based, what ever. The idea of the network as a programming entity will be replaced by networks as a technical layer, where the videos are hosted and delivered, and a social layers, which assists you in choosing programming you want to get.

Sounds godd – but has some ramifications. That’s why Google and cable firms warn of risks from Web TV As Vincent Dureau, Google’s head of TV technology, explained at the Cable Europe Congress 2007: The Web infrastructure, and even Google’s (infrastructure) doesn’t scale. It’s not going to offer the quality of service that consumers expect.

Statements like this have always to be taken with a grain of salt. But to deliver high quality TV content you need either have to wait for multicasting to finally take off (whcih means just broadacsting). Or you need quite some barns full of servers and access to cheap bandwith (The Google Way of life). One nice looking solution might be peer 2 peer networking. Joost is doing a great job here, trying to push p2p from the digital fringe into the consumer mainstream. But mind that: currently, the biggest chunk of all Internet traffic is alreday related to p2p-file transfer.
How can you scale this as an ISP? Only if you own your network from core to edge, from backbone to the last mile. And you will have to host as many peers as possible, so that you can keep as much traffic in your own network. Even than, it’s a rat’s race. As one Cable Operator explained at the Cable Conference: People (Internet service providers) don’t like to talk about (the fact) that just to stand still, they have to invest.

Tom Evslin has a nice post on this. If we all shift to watching TV on the Internet, the total bandwidth (Internet and other) required INTO our homes will decrease and the load on the Internet backbone and the regional distribution portions of the Internet will be – well – interesting. Of course, his calculation is a bit misleading. Most of your home-bandwith of today, used for broadcasting, is one way traffic on a shared medium.

As there’s no such thing as a free lunch: where’s all the bandwith coming from? And who’s going to pay for it? That’s why operators want to build up their walled gardens. And charge everybody else for putting stuff on their networks. Question is: do we really want to upgrade the delivery network monopolies of today into virtual content distribution monopolies, with some wholly owned social networking attached?

TV revolutions

Here we go. The Bill is merging PCs and TVs. Again (remember webTV?). And according to his Davos-speech, it will take just about five years to revolutionize the tube.

Of course, Mr. Bill is right. “I’m stunned how people aren’t seeing that with TV, in five years from now, people will laugh at what we’ve had,” he told business leaders and politicians at the World Economic Forum. Yes. What we‘ve had. Let’s not forget. Microsoft is the leading supplier of IPTV backend software for the leading telcos of the world. So it’s very much likely, that in five years, with Windows Vista being slowly replaced by its successor, Microsofts TV foundation will finally deliver on its promises.

Currently, IPTV isn’t any different from any other broadcasted multichannel tv. Same content, same linear delivery. That’s going to change. Slowly. Because for building huge proprietary interactive applications, you’ll need a huge audience. For building small proprietary interactive applications for micro audiences, you’ll need a huge incentive.

That’s where the blur starts. Huge IPTV deployments currently means a quarter million subcribers. That’s a lot if you have to start from scratch. But essentially equals the online population of Memphis, TN. And if you want to revolutionize a mass medium reaching billions of people all over the world, fueled by a global content industry, revolutionizing Memphis will be an important first step out of several gazillions.

That’s why The Bill is making a switch. To quote Reuters: The rise of high-speed Internet and the popularity of video sites like Google Inc.’s YouTube has already led to a worldwide decline in the number hours spent by young people in front of a TV set. Uhm. Interesting math. But Douglas A. McIntyre is making another point here: Using YouTube is actually a poor example of what is likely to happen. Making money from teenagers lip syncing music or farting in the tub is not likely to supplant content like the Superbowl. Unless, of course, Mr. Gates has odd tastes.

Broadband TV à la YouTube and IPTV à la Gates aren’t twins, separated after birth. It’s two completely different business models. Merging them will happen as soon as Microsoft publishes its software under a GNU license.
Let’s get back to the revolution. “Certain things like elections or the Olympics really point out how TV is terrible. You have to wait for the guy to talk about the thing you care about or you miss the event and want to go back and see it,” explains the software tycoon. “Internet presentation of these things is vastly superior.”

Yes, tv is (sometimes) terrible. An commented on demand features of live events would definitely be a very nice thing to have. But let’s put it like that. TV content is software, too. PC software and tv software a.k.a. broadcasting content are both increasing return businesses. Both are businesses because of the underlying intellectual property rights. But the major difference is: Windows XP has a life cycle of half a decade, at least. Events like the Olympics are good for month and a half. So a real Microsoft TV would be the only available channel, broadcasting a single event for a couple of years in a row, with monthly updates, thank you.

OK, unfair. Microsoft is in the enabling business. With Office being the premier User Generated Content-production suite. “Because TV is moving into being delivered over the Internet — and some of the big phone companies are building up the infrastructure for that — you’re going to have that experience all together,” sez Bill. Nope (No, he doesn’t have to care, as he’s delivering some building blocks for this infrastructure). But just because SAP data and YouTube-vids are delivered via IP, you will not be able to tune into TheWallStreetJournal.tv.

The Trojan Boxes

A box is a box is a box. But those console boxes are really mostly trojan horses. With one exception. Let’s start with this one. Nintendo’s Wii is just about playing (and puts the web on your tv; a fascinating retro concept straight from the mid nineties). I’m not a gamer. But the Wii with its funny controller redefined the meaning of jump and run gaming. No hidden agenda here.
With Microsoft and Sony, it’s a bit different. Sony’s Playstation 3 is by definition a trojan horse. It’s a fully fledged Linux home workstation (be afraid, Microsoft, be a teensy-weensy bit afraid), doesn’t contain any root kits (it’s a Linux) and is Sony’s spearhead to make Blue Ray the DVD of the future. A single PS3 contains more computing horsepower than all Apollo missions combined, sucks as much energy as a the fully enlightened Empire State Building, and doubles as a virtual lawn mower (at least, it looks like it should). For Sony, it’s make or break. If the PS3 doesn’t deliver, Sony will commit corporate seppuku and you can scrap up its remains on eBay.

Microsoft’s XBox isn’t that big on hardware. It still could render Toy Story 1 in a single afternoon, alas: no real super computer here. Anyway, Microsoft’s idea of operating system fun has been building up a hodepodge of completely different pieces of software, which just share a crappy user interface. Just look at Windows mobile, which is a s bad as it gets (and look at the iPhone: it’s running OS-X, not some bonsai shaped look-a-like). Compared to the Winmob, the XBox is definitely top notch. And it’s a trojan, too. Yes, MS endorsed the HD DVD. But it’s just an add on. The real BIG THING is IPTV. After all, Microsoft is a major player in IPTV. And selling settop-boxes is usually as promising as selling ice cubes in Antarctica (after all, it’s phantastic promise is: you buy this box, and you’ll be able to watch tv. Duh. ) So here comes the XBox. And here it is in action.

Bill sez: DRM s*cks

Well, of course he didn’t. But he meant it. Or how would you explain an advice like this, while meeting the politburo of the US blogosphere: People should just buy a CD and rip it. You are legal then. As Techcrunch’s Michael Arrington notes.

Now, what is this all about. DRM is a well loathed acronym of the digital entertainment world. Depending on your point of view, it either stands for Digital Rights Management. Meaning, as a publisher you can remotely control the access to digital data. Or Digital Restriction Management. Meaning, it’s a stupid/devious scheme to extend a business model of the 15th century (Johannes Gutenberg invents European movable type printing, thereby enabling mass media production) into the 21st century, which causes immense collateral damage.

To be honest, I understand both positions. Probably the most important digital media topic right now is the question of the content value chain. It’s a nice thing, that now everybody can get worldwide distribution. It would be even nicer, if this distribution could be monetized. In the current setup, producing user generated content means you become an active member of the attention economy. Attention economy always means, that all your efforts will pay out, if you get enough attention of a player with a more tradtional economic approach. It’s the American Idol model. Lots of people give their heart and soul, accept the possibility of public humiliation, to finally get an intern job at a global whatever conglomerate.

I theory, DRMing digital content would transform an infinitesimaly copyable digital file into ressource of virtual scarcity. Transforming it into a sellable good. Sounds good. Unfortunately, this just theory. In it’s current setup, DRMed content is cumbersome for consumers and adds layers of cost and complexity for copyright owners: choosing a DRM, licensing a DRM, paying for DRM – and paying for 1st level customer support, because the consumer does neither understand the tech nor the legal licensing stuff involved. And it can get worse. Just ask Sony BMG about its brilliant idea to infect consumer computers with black-hat-hacker-style root kits.

Of course, DRM is about Digital Restriction Management. Take a freely accessible set of data. Shrinkwrap it using DRM. And whoosh, you’ve restricted the total accessabiliy, and made those restrictions manageable, too. The concept is of course highly attractive. Let’s say, if you put some sensitive data on an intranet. In mass media, there a two different proponents. Traditional media companies, wanting to protect their traditional business model. And governements from überdemocratic countries like China and Iran. And that’s where the collateral damage starts. Because unfortunately, if you really want to shrinkwrap some media into a closed shop, you have to include pretty much all devices which potentially might be used to play such a file.

Which translates into: for protecting a nice old business model we put everything in place to jumpstart a dystopian surveillance society, modeled after Orwell’s 1984 and the East-German Stasi.

But I think, it really stands for Does it Really Matter. Correct me if I’m wrong. But even in a totally shrinkwrapped media world, you will have to leave some space for consumer produced media. Uncle Umpty will have to be able to make his dreadful birthday movies and post them somewhere in the digital realm. The next Robbie Williams will have to put some first moves and shakes onto a web site of his choice. And let’s not forget consumers. Yes, DRMed music downloads are picking up and the iPod saved the Apple. But the digital format of choice is still yer good olde MP3, no strings attached. When the Bill says: People should just buy a CD and rip it, he’s just stating the obvious. Guess where all the music is coming from, filling all those iPods. And the gazillion other MP3 devices out there in the wild, wild consumer world.

But let’s come back to the digital value chain. Is DRM evil? Nope. But it can be used for mighty evil things. So better be careful of the collateral damage. In its current implementation, DRM ist mostly stupid. Interoperability is a word consumers should not have to learn to hate (as it per se does not exist). DRM can be a nice thing in a confined setup. But it’s not a silver bullet. As a value chain of one chain link is a pretty feeble excuse for not being able to adapt to the brave new world of networked entertainment.

Pipe classic, Pipe lite

Yes, I like the virtual pipe (thanks, Bertram, for the pointing me to Andy Kessler). But, uhm, what exactly is a virtual pipe? As opposed to a real pipe, virtual pipes try to emulate a lock-in situation. To understand what he’s talking about, we have to remind ourselves that Andy is a) American and b) a VC. His real media pipe looks like a typical cable walled garden to me. Here’s the media, there’s the pipe, that’s your home. In the US, it’s a billion Dollar market. Break up this lock in situation, and you’ll be offering what VCs are looking for.
pipe1.jpg

A virtual pipe is just trying to emulate this lock-in situation. His prime example is convincing. The business model of console games is about a technologywise totally closed shop, built upon the razor model. The more boxes you sell (in the beginning even at a loss), the bigger your reach. And if everything goes well, you make a killing from the software licenses. BTW, brought into perfection by Microsoft. Not with Xbox, but yer olde Windows. As they outsourced the risk of shipping hardware, just keeping the increasing returns business of peddling software.
As it happens, it’s one of the oldest business ecosystems, in regards of media and technology. Edison and Berliner sold their hardware (OK, I doubt the grammophone was ever a loss leader). And started successful software subsidiaries, whose leftovers are now known as the music industry majors.

Apple’s iTunes takes this model topsy-turvy. The software a.k.a. music is the bait (a loss leader? I doubt that. Maybe micro business). The hardware is the game, and usability, design, and branding the driving forces. The virtual lock-in into the iPodsphere by DRM is actually pretty much non-existent. You won’t see too many poeple filling up their umpteen Gig hard drives with music bought in the iTunes store (S. Jobs could afford that. But could you?). And even then: you still have your desktop application which allows you to unlock the DRMed file. It’s a minor hurdle. But if you bought into the Applespace because of superior usabilty and convenience, this might be the virtual virtual lock in.
pipe2.jpg

Let’s take another step back. Media is a software business. Traditionally, the content is tied to a physical thingy. The model behind is milking a scarce ressource. Spectrum (if you’re a broadcaster), right of way (if you do cable), advertising (hold on – now it’s getting mushy).

Because for some strange reason, capital puts the telco, media, and, entertainment eggs into a single basket. Which only makes sense, if you never worked with a telco AND a media company. Telcos think infrastructure, decadelong depreciations. TV is about yesterdays ratings. And even if there’s sometimes a symbiosis going on, they are as much related to each other as a lactobazillus to my family. Can’t live without both of them, but that doesn’t make me the grand uncle of little acidophilus.

Of course, sometimes the strategic interests of telco and/or hardware companies led them to gobbling up some media properties (what’s content, compared to cash flow?). And, with the notable exception of Time Warner, you won’t see too many fully integrated telco-media-companies. Usually, the telcos wield the stick (Vodafones EBIT dwarfes the combined revenues of the whole music industry). John Malone used to play hardball with his media “partners”, or, remember the Japanes-led invasion of Hollywood? Ted Turner might have been the only media player, who successfully quenched his telco partners for the monies he needed.
In this concert, media plays the second fiddle. And content is as much king as the Green Giant the duke of Broccoli.
Yer olde media equation looks like this:

– raise lots of capital
– hook up with a large entity which controls a scarce ressource (governement, if it’s spectrum or just a license you need, a telco, if it’s cable bandwith, a game console company, if … and so on)
– aggregate/produce and distribute content
– make some money by either selling eyeballs or selling the goods (discs, cable subscriptions, paper …)
pipe3.jpg

With networked media and entertainment, this equation starts to change. The gridlock onto scarce ressources is weakening. Anybody gets global distribution by pressing an upload button. Which might make life kinda complicated for traditional media outfits. But, on the other hand: obviusoly, this new environment seems to serve new media companies Google pretty well.

And so we’re coming back to last posts final question: Is content now really king? Looking out of the window leads to the following idea. Olde media used to pay for content. Google’s positions itself more like an intelligent remote control (at least you do not have to pay for integration, like in the yellow pages). To Google, all content is created equal and just piece of data store in the indices of Google’s server farms. (The YouTube-deal might chance this comfortable postion; suddenyl, it’s all about licensing and copyrights.)

Does this mean, content will be demoted fiscally from lackey to lactobacillus? OK, this might be the logical path from the intern-executed media production style of the early 21st century. But, fair enough. More likely, that’s what happens if you look out of the window and outside everything’s greyish, wet and fall.

Mostly, the de-piping of media pomme1.jpgmeans:
– As abundance replaces scarcity as a driving factor, media’s distributional power is reduced to the power of being a brand. Which, in an environment of abundance, ain’t that bad a position.
– Network neutrality assumed, the media’s gatekeeper position won’t be taken over by the telcos. Or, at least, you’ll have a choice which gated (or open) commuinty you’re going to visit today.
– Meta-media like plain search engines, dedicated search engines plus hosting (ASPs like YouTube, Flickr), social networks et al drives the audience to the content. Old media mostly picks up what’s already on their screens.

But what’s the effect on content? The medium is the package. Which, by it’s commercial needs and restrictions, defines the content. TV shows are produced around commercial breaks. A pop album is defined by the capacity of vinyl records and CDs. Which, after this little excuriosn, leads us back again to last next stop: the content value chain ….

A Road Map to Moving Images

Lately, I was having a talk with Ibo on all things digital (tv), trying to outline the future of audio visual media (being humble is not always a virtue). Let’s put it like that: the whole apparatus is changing. Question is: where to?

It always makes sense to start with a user centric approach. How are people accessing their AV-media? Basically, we’re either talking about receiving broadcasts or on demand access. Do we have to define linear broadcasting? Probably not. TV channels are aggregating content and deliver it to your home, using a scarce ressource called available spectrum/bandwith.

IPTV, broadband TVOn demand might need a bit more explaining. As on demand isn’t just a technological nirwana to be reached in the near time future, but accessing an archive to choose something to watch. Which might happen to be a part of your own VHS-collection, a DVD rented in a store, or a download or stream coming via any broadband pipe.
If you think I’m overdoing this, get this: New York Times – Microsoft Moves Into Video Download Fray.

(Let’s not get into details. While users will be able to keep television shows, movies can only be rented for a 24-hour period. The videos will not be playable on other devices and cannot be burned onto DVDs, but the online service will keep track of purchases so users can log in to watch their videos on a friend’s Xbox, does a bit sound like a sure recipe for disaster to me – if you do not restrict your target group to paralegals working for IP lawyers).

In the end, IPTV sits smack in the middle. As IP is the telco-equivalent of the Blob. The end user/consumer/viewer couldn’t care less. In a perfect world, he plugs, he plays. And doesn’t have to think about walled gardens, net neutrality or even the device he’s using (do you care about the specs of your VHF tuner? Do you switch between VHF and UHF? Only if your tv set is 500 years old and still black and white).

The only thing he cares about is a moving image. It’s the emotion, stupid. That’s why content finally could be king. As the bottleneck of aggregation and distribution is vanishing. Could be, because: only in fairy tales, kings do not have to earn their living.
OK. Next stop: the content value chain.