Dec 10

The war for the family room – Part 2

With the tepid reception of the first generation of Google TV devices, the article that follows may seem too kind to Google. I ask you to suspend reality for a few minutes, and imagine that Google will, as Google often does, “try, try again”.

Recently I discussed three devices that today may not seem terribly similar. However, I believe that in the next 1-2 years, you will see these three devices, and the three companies behind them, going head to head.

  • Microsoft – Xbox 360
  • Apple – Apple TV
  • Google – Google TV

At first glance, you’re probably shaking your head saying maybe the last two have some things in common. But compare them deeper using the appendix provided below, and you’ll see the devices aren’t terribly different – and will be meeting in the middle over the coming year or two.

In the end, all three platforms provide, or could/will provide 1) Media content, 2) Applications, and 3) Games. All become “diversion in a box”. Microsoft’s is predisposed as a gaming device, Apple’s as an iTunes consumption device, and Google’s, seemingly focused on attempting to integrate the web into the television (to a content-provider limited end at this point).

There is an important differentiation I want to make here – consoles, generally, are social devices. So is the Apple TV and most content on Google TV. However I believe that there are two types of applications on consoles/media boxes – single user and multiple user.

Twitter and Facebook, though often touted as “TV Applications”, aren’t. Your Twitter feed is yours – how interesting is it to your family, really. Same with much of your Facebook feed – especially where school or work meets family. MLB At Bat on the other hand? Generally pretty multiple user – as much so as live TV of the same event would be. Many games or applications on the iPhone/iPod Touch won’t port well to an Apple TV environment – for example note-taking applications or Mahjongg, which are generally solitary applications. Instead, the applications I believe will be successful on these types of devices are social ones. Imagine a multi-user Angry Birds with iDevices (or Androids for Google TV users) as Wii-like motion-sensing remotes, or also look  at games such as Pinball Remote, which uses an iDevice for a controller and a Mac for the display – replace the Mac with an Apple TV and a television – same concept.

As Kinect moves Microsoft more into the casual games market (to date the happy spot for the Wii), the announced apps market does the same for Google TV, and a potential App Store would for Apple TV, it’s not hard to see these devices going head to head to become the center of your family room – providing you content, multi-user games, and social applications.


Xbox 360:

  • Primary role: Gaming device
  • Price: $199-$399, based upon storage and inclusion of Kinect
  • Controller: Proprietary gaming controllers, optional proprietary entertainment remote, Kinect gesture controller
  • Third-party applications: Games only, though limited “applications” have been made available (Twitter, Facebook). I anticipate this may change by 2012.
  • Content sources: Zune – subscription based music, rental based video, or purchase of music/video, Media Center PC streaming, U-verse, Netflix.
  • Live TV: Yes – Either as a Media Center Extender streaming from a Windows Media Center PC, or if you are an AT&T U-verse subscriber, it can also serve as a secondary head unit.
  • Special functionality: Gaming console, U-verse secondary box, Windows Media Center Extender
  • Limitations: No third party applications yet, cost, may not appeal to non-gamers.

Apple TV:

  • Primary role: Media pass-through device
  • Price: $99
  • Controller: Simple proprietary remote or comprehensive iPhone/iPod Touch Remote application.
  • Third-party applications: Not yet, and not announced. Anticipated in Q3CY11.
  • Content sources: iTunes store – rental based video, sharing/AirPlay from iTunes on a Mac or PC, AirPlay from iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch, Netflix, YouTube.
  • Live TV: No
  • Special functionality: Significant content rental availability, AirPlay streaming from iDevices, streaming from iTunes.
  • Limitations: No third party applications yet, no content purchase from device, no music purchase from device (regressions from prior version).

Google TV:

  • Primary role: Media pass-through device
  • Price: $229 and up
  • Controller: Most offer full-QWERTY keyboard controller, Android/iPhone remote application available as well.
  • Third-party applications: Limited third party applications included. No marketplace for others yet, but announced. Anticipated in Q1CY11.
  • Content sources: Live TV routed through device, but only for DISH Network subscribers, streaming video from web (if allowed by site provider – a problem to date) or Netflix or Amazon VOD.
  • Live TV: Yes – DISH Network only.
  • Special functionality: Web browser with Flash support, content search, key applications such as Pandora integrated in.
  • Limitations: No third party applications yet, cost, complexity, lack of content at the present time (artificially constrained by content providers).

Oct 10

The war for the family room – Part 1

The 1990’s saw Microsoft invest considerably in IPTV research as well as investing directly in communications providers, in 1998 they collaborated with Sega on the Dreamcast and they acquired WebTV for $425M in 1997. I distinctly recall no end of criticism from the press for Microsoft’s continued investment in IPTV, something that Microsoft felt was a longer term investment, but that pundits missed the wisdom of. The Dreamcast is of course now discontinued, as is WebTV, though it is hard for me to look at Google TV and not innately think of it as WebTV with an application platform. The form factor, and even the controversial full keyboard included with the device(s)

Since the original Xbox shipped almost 9 years ago, Microsoft has been fighting a war for the family room, in order to be the hub of your entertainment (gaming, and to a degree, larger) world. They’ve also thrown down several other gauntlets. Microsoft’s efforts to break in to the “last mile” of video for some time resulted in the Windows CE-based UltimateTV platform used by DirectTV (discontinued in 2002 amidst aggressive competition) and now providing the Mediaroom platform used by AT&T U-verse and Deutsche Telekom, among others, which has recently added the ability to view live content on the Xbox 360 as if it was a native receiver and use Windows Phone 7 to schedule or view recorded content.

Windows XP Media Center Edition (“MCE”) really began the process of Microsoft exploring the family room with their own “standalone” platform beyond the Xbox, albeit on traditional OEM PC’s decked out with TV Tuners, high-end video cards (and significant HDD space and RAM). MCE was initially a special version of XP that honestly only the geekiest, most Windows-centric videophile could stay in love with – I was in love with it for awhile – until the system began misbehaving and costing me recordings – reminding me that PC’s aren’t appliances. MCE was complete with it’s own thin clients (Media Center Extenders or “MCXs”, including the Xbox 360). A platform that puts a Windows PC at the heart of your entertainment world isn’t something most consumers were willing to buy into, and the irony is that MCXs were created to let you move your MCE system back out of the family room into an office or other location – so even if MCE was to be your entertainment hub, it was to be relegated to somewhere less thermally and acoustically challenging than a stack of dedicated A/V equipment. Devices that acted solely as Media Center Extender devices were short-lived and now no longer exist – the Xbox 360 remains the sole “extender” available, and was the only one ever able to view HD-quality content.

Even with a software development API that allowed integration into the Media Center Edition user interface, there was never any vibrant third-party application ecosystem for Media Center in the manner that there is for the iPhone or Android devices. In true Microsoft form, the focus was on providing a content platform – at best, a user-experience – to the standard consumption of “dumb tv” content*. Microsoft provides applications and platforms – that’s what they do. Media Center functionality remains available, and is included as a component of many versions of Windows Vista and Windows 7.

Interestingly, the original MCX form factor from Linksys (also white-labeled by HP) were dead-silent solid state devices not unlike the new generation of Apple TV hardware (MCXs ran Windows CE whereas the Apple TV runs iOS – the latter is effectively an 8GB iPod Touch with no accelerometer or display) – though extenders were designed in a form factor that blended in with A/V hardware, versus the Apple TV’s diminutive size that hides well but frankly looks odd tucked into (onto?) a stack of components. MCX systems though, were dumb terminals with limited local CPU. Using a technically impressive “mashup” of sorts with RDP (Microsoft’s Remote Desktop protocol) and QoS-managed streaming video to a small transparent window on the RDP display, MCX systems gave the illusion that you were running the Media Center experience locally. But critically, this thin-client approach resulted in a platform that cannot support locally installed applications. To my knowledge, the Xbox 360 uses the same thin client approach as a MCX, but of course has a much more robust platform locally that is used to develop games – a derivative of which has been used for development of applications and games on Windows Phone 7.

Apple TV units began shipping last month. Google has now shown hardware from Sony and Logitech running their Google TV platform. At this point, Apple TV appears to be largely about consuming any iTunes content that you already have, or using it to stream rented iTunes or Netflix content or  kiosk (Apple’s objective being getting you to consume media content). Unsurprisingly, Google TV will be largely focused on consuming web content and making other content easily searchable (Google’s objective being ad revenue on the way to helping you find what you want), as well as helping you navigate recorded content and programming schedules. Though for now it appears that there will be limited exposure to data mining of TV viewing habits while using Google TV, it will surely become part of their exercise in organizing the world’s information. In it’s first incarnation, Google TV will be delivering a narrow portfolio of built-in applications, and Google has announced a broader plan to provide for an open app ecosystem not unlike that for Android phones.

Given the fact that Apple TV is in essence a current generation iPod Touch, running iOS, it is all but certain that there will be a similar app story for the Apple TV platform – especially taking into account that Apple put out the original iPhone with no app platform, but rectified that not long afterwards. I’m not privy to Apple’s internal planning, but while it’s got a horribly absent third-party app story now, I’ve got a theory about what an Apple TV app platform could possibly bring with it that could make it truly a game changer. I’ll shortly follow up with my next post discussing the coming war for the family room. A war which will have three familiar players (perhaps not the three you’re thinking of), considerable opportunity, and an amazing set of possibilities for new consumer functionality.

*When I say “dumb TV”, I mean wrapping classic broadcast content up in a pretty, time-shiftable candy shell. MCE is effectively a DVR that can also play back music, movies, and photos. The alternative is creating either a platform that consumes licensed content (a-la iTunes) at the benefit of the consumer in order to avoid watching ads by paying for the content explicitly, or the option I expect Google to execute, which will focus on making the advertising more dynamic/custom – in time. After all, Apple is now a content company, and Google is an advertising company.