Jason Sando

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

There's a transcript of the Steve Jobs' interface from D8 available at http://d8.allthingsd.com/20100601/steve-jobs-session/

Its interesting that Steve says “… Apple TV is a hobby,” because “the television industry fundamentally has a subsidized business model that gives everyone a set-top box.” He goes on to say this is stifling innovation, ie because there’s no “go-to-market strategy.”

I know, from working in digital signage for the Casino Gaming industry, that there is a tremendous amount of innovation, across many competing vendors. The Apple TV is a terrific, polished product, in a sexy little box, for an incredibly low retail fee. There are dozens of 3rd-party boxes now available. I’m always on the lookout for interesting ARM-based products for use in industrial environments, but even in the X86 space I find for example the NVidia ION products very interesting. Zotac, Jetway, Viewsonic (?!) all have interesting products. I’ve had a much more difficult time getting AMD or Intel video hardware acceleration working under Linux, whereas NVidia works well, decoding and scaling 1080p streams while compositing in OSD.

These are all barebones-systems for under $300. All are released within the last 6-12 months. So, there is clearly hardware innovation, and this must be driven by something.

I’m guessing that “something” is the hobbyist HTPC (Home Theatre PC) market. There are a plethora of HTPC software projects. MythTV is one of my personal favorites, I’ve used a spin off called “MiniMyth” for several years. MiniMyth is a custom BusyBox Linux build, with MythTV, optimized for VIA MiniITX boards.

But, as I’ve seen at my own house, the HTPC is an add-on product. MiniMyth can’t tune directly into my digital cable service (Cox Communications), so I have to use a capture card to capture the video output from a cable box, transcode and rebroadcast within my house – creating lag especially when changing channels. MiniMyth can’t interact with Cox Communications VOD system. Its basically a hobbyist system, ie for someone who is willing to put up with all the extra pieces (and inherent instability!) this solution creates. The AppleTV works with iTunes and can do some great stuff, like making it super easy to listen to your music on your entertainment system or watch your pictures or movies … but not via live tv over your cable system.

It seems like the real problem in this space is not that cable boxes are “subsidized”, but that the innovative HTPC market can’t plug directly into the cable system. Ie, it seems more like a problem of there needing to be an open standard for digital cable tv services.

But, the trajectory of the home media system market now looks like it’s a matter of bandwidth. Once I can tune my HTPC directly into abc.com to watch Lost re-runs, what do I need the cable box for? I can sense many people nodding their heads … but consider this: right now with the cable box, I have a guaranteed service level across every channel. If any of those channels isn’t rendering correctly, I can call Cox. If consumers have to tune into every TV station via their website, and one works and one doesn’t, and the recourse is to email admin@somesite.com and hope for a reply … well that won’t be much fun.

This last is a perfect argument for services that aggregate radio, tv, and movie content. Sites like NetFlix or Hulu.

Hmm. Time to go make an investment?

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