Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Evolution of the Digital Living Room

Apple with its iPad, Apple TV and iCloud for movies and TV shows has delivered a seamless ecosystem to the consumer's digital living room for owning and watching content from multiple devices in the home.  The rest of the industry (SmartTVs, connected devices, Android tablets) struggles to create a similar experience when they are a single-brand ecosystem and fail miserably when there are devices from multiple manufacturers in the household.
How can the industry work to solve this problem?  Part of that solution is UltraViolet.  As discussed in previous blogs, the concept is that someday I will have the same experience as the Apple ecosystem (buy a movie with the UltraViolet feature and have access to it from every device I own).  The reality today is that none of my SmartTVs or connected devices (except my iPads and PCs/Macs) can stream content from Flixster, some have access to Vudu, but if I purchase on Blu-ray I can use "sneaker net" to carry the disc from room to room.

But perhaps more important than UV is a better connectivity approach to the digital living room itself.  The challenge here is that DLNA is not enough.  Assuming I have a pre-sorted directory on my PC where I can access that I am looking for is a bad assumption.  The majority of SmartTV companies have been busy building their own proprietary approaches to solving this problem (with and without partners).  Boxee is trying to solve this problem, but I think its focus on a 10-foot remote experience limits its capability to do so.

I think the best way for the consumer and for the device manufacturers to move forward is for the device manufacturers to focus (similar to LG) on exposing their devices via APIs to applications on tablets (second screens) and local (home movies) and over-the-top video services (Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon, VDIO, M-GO, etc).  This allows Second Screen apps (think BuddyTV, Dijit) to deliver the "Simple" capability to control the large TV (1st screen) and deliver the selected TV show or movie to that 1st screen (or tune the channel), but also provides a more natural interface (2-foot remote, touch screen, virtual keyboard) for "Social" interaction, review of "Stimulating" content and "Discovery" of new content, and providing the "Seamless" delivery of the source of that content across services so that it can be delivered directly to the viewing screen.  This then gives the consumer the capability to buy devices (Boxee, PS3, Xbox, Blu-ray players) and Smart TVs from different manufacturers and still have a robust alternative ecosystem that is similar in capability to Apple's.

And this approach is an urgent requirement for the industry because the consumer will not wait much longer to improve their own digital living rooms.

Let's face the facts.  If the iPad tablet market share holds in the 90%+ range, consumers are going to start buying Apple TVs (Tim Cook described them as iPad accessories), which will obviate the need for SmartTVs and other devices almost entirely:

  • removes the need for Blu-ray players since the Ultraviolet experience is built-in to iCloud for the Apple ecosystem
  • removes the need for SmartTVs as Apple TV connects to HDMI
  • removes the need for other devices for streaming services with Netflix,, etc, on the AppleTV product
  • leaving only the home movie challenge which Apple then solves with their iMovie and iPhoto products.

If you don't believe this is urgent, check out my recent experience at home below:

I have had a frustrating last few weeks with my Apple Ecosystem at home (AppleTV, iTunes on a Windows PC as my main library, 4 iPads & 4 iPhones for a family of 4--by no means ordinary in penetration).  Apple's latest 10.5x change to the iTunes software has a bug in it that requires you to turn off IPv6 in your network adapter of your Windows 64-bit PC (guess how long it took me to figure that out?).

So for those few weeks, I was forced to deal with the "average" digital living room in my attempts to share and watch content in my home.  I am sure most Americans have 3-4 TVs in the house (so say the statistics)  of different brands plus a gaming console or two and various connected Blu-ray players.  In my house, we have a Boxee Box, an Xbox 360, a PS3, 3 "SmartTVs" (a Samsung TV, an LG TV, and Panasonic) and another connected LG Blu-ray player.  We typically use Vudu to rent movies (better experience than Apple in Discovery and delivery in real-time) on the PS3 or Boxee, we watch "high end" TV on the Apple TV (series not yet available on Netflix or Hulu), and watch all other content either live or DVR'd from our AT&T U-verse or from iPads/other connected TVs/devices via Netflix or Hulu+.

What a mess.

Our digital living room experience at home a few weeks ago (and going forward since I fixed the IPv6 problem) was that for special movies and TV series, we would buy them, and they would download automatically into the main library where everyone in the family had access to them forever more from iPads or the Apple TV (using local delivery or the iCloud).  Home movies that were already in .mp4 were also available to those devices.

During the "time of digital failure", I tried using the DLNA capabilities of the various devices including Boxee, PS3, and my TV-connected PC to watch home videos or non-DRM'd content (outside of Netflix and Hulu+).  I think all of you probably already know how painful this was.  Boxee is probably the best at being able to decode multiple formats of personal home video (Canon camcorder, Canon DSLR, iPhones, etc), but is difficult to use to browse and find content (as we shoot and store video).  The PC which houses everything is just not built for a 10-foot remote experience (yes I have tried to font changes, I have a Logitech mini-keyboard, and even occasionally us LogMeIn from a laptop instead to control it).

The experience was so painful, that we actually purchased a few movies on Vudu as an experiment (can't download to the iPad, but you can stream) and had another push on Boxee for home movies.  Ultimately, it was the "stick" that drove me to fix the Home Sharing bug Apple created.

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