The Wrong Debate Over Set-Top Boxes

Today (Nov. 9th) was the last day for filing comments with the Federal Communications Commission regarding the final report of the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC) and folks in the pay-TV industry were clearly getting nervous that the FCC might finally, really do something this time to “tear up the set-top box.”

Last week, eight of the largest pay-TV providers, along with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the Motion Picture Association Push_button_cable_boxof America, and several equipment manufacturers together sent a phalanx of lawyers and lobbyists to FCC headquarters, ex parte, in a desperate bid to head off any movement by the agency toward a rulemaking that would require pay-TV providers to disaggregate their services into rearrangable  parts as proposed by the technology company and public interest faction of DSTAC.

The group was particularly exercised by an ex parte filing with the commission in late October by Public Knowledge, Google, Amazon and Hauppauge purporting to fill in the technical details of the “virtual head-end” proposal made by the technology faction of DSTAC for separating out the components of pay-TV services. According to MPAA, NCTA et. al., however, the new version “is so changed that it is barely recognizable from [the technology group’s] earlier proposal in the DSTAC Report,” and required more time for study before they could adequately respond to it. Read More »

The Studios Look For An Island In The Set-Top Storm

The Motion Picture Association of America really, really doesn’t want the FCC to tear up the set-top box. So much so that its filing with the commission last week regarding the final report of the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC) contained a thinly veiled threat of litigation should the FCC mandate disaggregation of pay-TV services into parts that can be reassembled at will, and on constitutional grounds no less.

“Mandating such a regime…could violate content owners’: 1) contracts with distributors regarding how their content may be presented, monetized, and accessed; 2)

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exclusive rights under section 106 of the Copyright Act to determine how their content is copied, distributed, and publicly performed; 3) First Amendment right against compelled speech; and 4) Fifth Amendment right against taking of property without due compensation,” the MPAA warned. “If third-parties wish to offer a subset of content, services, features, and functions rather than all the choices distributors offer customers in the way that they offer them, the appropriate course is through individualized negotiation, not regulatory fiat.”

What has the Hollywood trade group so exercised is a proposal by one faction within DSTAC, included in the final report, to require cable and satellite providers to unbundle their video feeds from other elements of their services, including the user interface, interactive features and billing, so those feeds can be incorporated into the UI of a third-party device and integrated with other video services. Only then, proponents of unbundling argue, can consumer electronics makers create devices that can compete fully with or replace set-top boxes provided by pay-TV operators. Read More »

Search Me, Search Me Not: Apple TV And The Battle For Screen Time

At $149, it’s hard to say at this point whether the new Apple TV will gain much traction against less expensive competitors that do substantially the same things. But as I and others have noted, Apple TV will have at least one potentially compelling feature the others don’t have: universal content search via Siri, with deep links into individual apps.

Users will be able to search for titles, actors, directors and other criteria by voice command across multiple apps and then choose which service to use to watch the content you were looking for. As confirmed by Apple CEO Tim Cook in a recent interview with BuzzFeed, Apple TV will be able to tell you with a single search that the hulu_nocbs-1first three seasons of a five-season series you’re binge-watching are available on Netflix while the fourth season is available for purchase through iTunes and the fifth is available only on HBO, a provide you deep links to each without having to go through any particular service’s native UI.

Initially, universal search will only be available with iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Showtime and HBO. But in the same BuzzFeed interview, Cook said Apple will open an API for any developer that wants their app included in Universal search.

“[W]e’ll have five major inputs into universal search initially. But we’re also opening an API, so that others can join in,” Cook said. “I think that many, many people will want to be in that search.” Read More »

Amazon Opens Fire On Apple TV And Chromecast

Amazon this week has left little doubt as to the scale of its ambitions in over-the-top video. Just days after Amazon-owned Twitch announced plans to roll out new tools for uploading on-demand content to the platform to better compete with YouTube, the e-commerce giant declared war on Apple and Google for supremacy on the set-top.

In a memo to Amazon Marketplace merchants, first reported by BloombergBusiness, Amazon said it would stop selling the Apple TV set-top box and Google’s Chromecast streaming dongle, both of which compete with Amazon’s own Fire TV STB and Fire Stick dongle. No new listings for Apple TV and Chromecast will be Amazon_Fire_TVaccepted the memo said, and listings for existing inventories would be removed as of Oct. 29th.

According to the memo, the items are being removed because they are not fully compatible with  Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service.

“Over the last three years, Prime Video has become an important part of Prime,” the memo said. “It’s important that the streaming media players we sell interact well with Prime Video in order to avoid customer confusion.”

Translation: We can’t get our fully enabled Prime Video app onto iOS devices or supported by Chromecast because we refuse to fork over the 30 percent cut of in-app purchases demanded by Apple and Google. Read More »

Apple TV Phones It In

Apple didn’t exactly “tear up the set-top box” to create the new Apple TV, as Steve Jobs once insisted was essential to any viable go-to-market strategy for any new entrant to the TV space. What it came up with instead is precisely what Jobs claimed no one would buy: another box, with another remote to clutter up the set-top and the coffee table.

Worse, as other commentators have noted, many if not most of the features and functionalities of Apple’s new set-top are already available on other devices from other manufacturers, generally at a lower price.

So, the new Apple TV is DOA? I wouldn’t write the obituary just yet.

The key is to think about Apple TV not as a standalone device but as an extension of Apple’s ecosystem, particularly the App Store, to the living room. As was first reported by 9to5Mac, the new Apple TV shares many internal components with the latest generation of iPhones, and runs a full iOS core optimized for a 50-inch Ooyala-q2-2015-mobile-video-trendsscreen. The Apple TV’s new touch and gesture-powered remote is clearly designed to echo and evoke the iPhone’s familiar touch-driven UI. From a hardware and OS perspective, the new Apple TV is essentially an iPhone for the TV, capable of doing most of what an iPhone can do short of making phone calls.

While that may seem incidental, it will allow developers to create tightly integrated mobile and set-top experiences to a degree that hasn’t really been possible up to now on other TV apps platforms. With 44 percent of video plays now occurring on mobile devices, according to Ooyala’s latest Global Video Index report, tying mobile and set-top video together in a single, seamless platform is obviously critical, for content owners and marketers, as well as for consumers. At the same time, the integration will allow Apple to tap the creativity of millions of developers already familiar with creating rich experiences in iOS to populate the new Apple TV App Store. Read More »