Disrupt TV

We recently at home installed “Shaw Gateway“, to replace the previous PVR we had – mostly because we have 2 TVs, and remembering where I’d recorded what was a hassle. And it’s better in many ways than the previous system. I generally like the UI better, although it is still terrible. Everything about this says “I was designed by an engineer”. For something that exists almost entirely as end-user interface, it’s shockingly bad. But it’s no worse than the systems I’ve seen for Telus or Comcast, so I’m assuming they’re all more or less the same. Like DVD/Blu-ray/TV menus. The Apple TV menu, which still is pretty shitty IMO (see how many clicks it takes to find, then play, a video stored in your itunes library), is so much better than all of these, it’s no wonder that people are clamoring for a “real” Apple TV.

When will there be a Nest for TV interface? I’m currently assuming the reason for all of this is that all the software is locked down by the broadcasters so that they maintain a monopoly on the devices used to watch their programming. Sort of like Carriers/hardware pre-iPhone.

Most of all, given the existence of such services as “on-demand”, and the relative costs and support-headaches of providing physical hardware with fallible hard-drives is why this is stored at my house at all. Over christmas, I downloaded a saved game from Skyrim onto a brand-new xbox in a totally different city and continued playing it. I feel like I should be able to do the same with anything I’ve PVR’d. There’s got to be a business model in there that makes sense:

  • Let people have an allotted space (let’s say 50GB), with their cable subscription, or, charge them pennies per GB per month, scaling on range
  • You could potentially charge people to stream shows they’ve recorded, but that seems “mean” – after all, they pay a monthly subscription to cover costs.
  • much like the super-annoying ads that you can’t skip on some DVD/blu-ray discs, providers could sell non-skippable ads prior to a streamed show (perhaps in lieu of charging for storage or bandwidth).

What cable-providers “own” is the content they provide. Sure, they’re just conduits for networks, but there’s a HUGE convenience to the end-user. Imagine if you had to order/pay each network separately to get access to their content? Sure, some people would, but it would be a hassle (aside: this channel-as-app trend is worrisome. Less choice is often better than more choice, if more convenient. But why not open up the ability to access that content? Write an API, let anyone create ways to access it. Charge for that access. Think of the business savings of having only a few B2B accounts to manage, rather than 10s of thousands of end-user customer accounts. Let new, innovative startups find new, interesting ways to provide your content to people, while you sit back and focus on large-scale infrastructure & volume deals.  Cablecos and telcos are sort of the same: their business should be providing large scale infrastructure and charging for the use of that infrastructure (data,voice,video,audio). The iPhone and the subsequent smart-phone revolution have started the process of revolutionizing how we interact with our carriers (particularly as more and more phones are sold “unlocked”). I don’t personally think that TVs themselves are a great hardware/software business for apple to get into. A TV is just a monitor. Sure, Apple and others make some gorgeous monitors, but not because the software in them is great – just solid industrial design. Where TV can, and, should be disrupted are these little, (somewhat) cheap, (somewhat) disposable boxes through which we interact with the content on our TV. This is where the disruption should happen. Something that people can afford to upgrade hardware every few years, with software updates in between. Much like I currently pay Rogers for access to their infrastructure (and they subsidize the cost of my phone over a 2-year contract), while I pay Apple and other 3rd parties for hardware and software, why am I not paying Shaw for access to their infrastructure, but someone else for the hardware and various software options to use on my device?

Thinking about DRM & the subscription pricing model

It seems clear to me that companies, Apple (with Apple TV) and Microsoft (with the XBox) in particular, are pushing to eliminate the need for physical media to watch movies. It does, in many ways, seem inevitable – bandwidth is cheap, storage space is cheap and discs are prone to scratching, etc.

I’m not particularly offended by DRM for this purpose. I loathe DRM on anything I own. It’s my feeling that I’ve bought it, I should be able to make 2 million copies, remix it, re-edit it, transcode it to whatever formats I feel. But the rental system it makes sense. Currently, I can rent a movie, keep it as long as I like, watch it as many times as I like, then return it. And for that privilege, along with those restrictions, I expect to pay much less for a rental than I do to own it. I’m a Zip member, and my current subscription settings allows me to rent an unlimited number of movies, but only 3 at a time. For this I pay $25/month. And it works out well. Most months, I receive 7-8 movies, or +/- $3/movie. However some months I only get 1 or 2, so it costs me more. The point is thought, is that I don’t have to think about the cost of a particular movie. I’m far more willing to give any movie a chance when I’m not paying specifically for that rental. I’ve watched (and enjoyed) many movies that I would never have gambled on had I needed to pay for it individually.

And this is the problem with both the current Apple TV and XBox offerings (beyond in the embarrassingly small collections when compared to Zip or Netflix) – I have to evaluate the individual item for cost. The same holds true for iTunes – tellingly, I have an eMusic account, for the simple reason that the cost is aggregated out and so I can take risks on individual tracks, sometimes even entire albums, because I don’t have to judge, in advance, if that particular track is worth $0.99. It’s purely a psychological difference, but regretting 1/40th of my $12 monthly is, for me, much better than regretting a single dollar spent (of course, the fact that each track at eMusic in reality about $0.30 helps too).

So what does this all boil down to? for media, and rentals in particular, a subscription model works well – certainly NetFlix has proven this. Beyond that, the DRM system needs to be more flexible to support this idea – set it up so that it knows in aggregate how many movies I am currently renting. Allow me to watch each of them as many times as I like, for as long as I like – or at least for a month or so before automatically ‘returning them’. Restrict me only  by how many I can be renting at a given time, but don’t make pay per transaction. I’m not convinced that current DRM models, which are tied to the individual media, really supports this. What I’m suggesting is that DRM models be tied to the individual consumer, rather than the media, to allow greater flexibility in pricing and consumption models. We know enough about online identities at this point (viz – the standard ‘5 devices/1 account’ models of DRM’d media stores) to be able to accomplish this. My gut tells me until control over consumption is handed back to the consumer, we won’t see mainstream acceptance of current digital delivery initiatives on a massive scale.

%d bloggers like this: