May 1, 2011

Over 4 years ago I cut cable out of my monthly bills: I downgraded from the $80 basic digital cable package to a $13 option that includes little more than local and public-access channels. Since then I've saved a couple thousand dollars in cable bills, but I wouldn't say that cutting the cord is for everyone yet. The main reason: although there are standards for encoding video for use over the Internet, there are no viable standards for consuming that video.

I've been very excited about video streaming technologies in the past. I was part of the beta for Joost, a peer-to-peer video streaming venture by the creators of Skype, which I said "looks amazing" at the time. Despite the Joost client's slick user interface and social features, the service never attracted enough compelling content. (I can only watch so many World's Strongest Man and Stella reruns.) Joost eventually abandoned their peer-to-peer client in favor of a simple Flash web site and silently slipped into obscurity.

Since 2007 a variety of TV-on-your-PC options have come around: Hulu, Boxee, Netflix streaming, and YouTube have all been seen as successes in getting video watchers to cross over to the Internet. So far, though, there is no compelling cocktail to blend new-media with old. In short, there is no successful TV-on-your-PC-on-your-TV experience.

I still have the same media PC I bought four years ago, a hatbox-sized Sony VGX-TP1 now running Windows 7. I plugged it into my A/V receiver and dedicated it to media consumption. I mostly run Windows Media Center to record and play back TV shows, but since it has a full operating system, I can view videos from any source. So far I haven't found many reasons to lug out the keyboard and navigate around the web on a screen 10 feet away. There's virtually no development going on for applications for media PCs: everything is either designed to run in a web browser or on a portable device. Windows Media Center is supposedly extendable with a plugin system, but what plugins exist are hobbyists' weekend projects, supported by a threadbare network of what Microsoft euphemistically calls "enthusiasts."

My Xbox 360, also made by Microsoft, goes further in enabling the 10-foot interface: besides the games it plays, it can also stream content from Netflix, Last.fm, ESPN, and Hulu Plus. Its interface, alas, isn't simple enough: I boot into an ad-filled dashboard that requires scrolling in both directions to reveal icons for these services. Even with my fancy Harmony One universal remote, there's no way for me to automate turning my system on and switching to a particular video service. There's also no way to consume content for other services since only Microsoft can release dashboard updates for my console. (A company called PlayOn makes a server that enables other forms of media streaming to the Xbox 360, but I found it to be a kludgey, expensive, inelegant hack.)

There are several other devices that stream Internet video as a secondary function, like the PlayStation 3 and the Wii, and as a primary function, like the Roku and Apple TV boxes. All of these are limited by arrangements that must exist between the device makers and content providers. Major League Baseball streams its video to the PlayStation 3 but not to the Xbox 360. Amazon's Instant Video service works on the Roku devices but not on Apple TV. The only device I own that can stream everything on-line is my media PC, but navigating file trees and web sites requires me to squint at tiny text 10 feet away.

Boxee and Google TV have tried to offer more open, extensible platforms for streaming video. In exchange for their efforts, they've been served cease and desist notices from many of the more traditional content providers. ABC, NBC, CBS, and other networks blocked Google TV's web browser from accessing their video sites even though that browser is functionally identical to one running on my media PC. Boxee, whose software runs on a PC or on a dedicated set-top box, has experienced disputes with Netflix that jeopardized Netflix's streaming functionality for Boxee's users.

Two kinds of standards need to coalesce before Internet video can be considered mainstream: one for finding content and one for playing it back with minimal effort.

Google TV's efforts have been centered around search. Typing a title or actor can bring up content stored on your cable box or on the Internet. That's a good start. A comprehensive solution would also include subscription services linked to the device, each of which would expose a simple catalog, unencrypted and designed to be indexed on one device or by any search engine. These standards already exist but few providers expose such indexes to their customers in such a programmatic way. My DVR's guide shows all the channels in a single grid. Why should I have to memorize which services and which apps provide the shows I want to watch?

Playing back content needs to be as easy as powering a device on and seeing a list of options. For example, if I finished half of a movie last night, my device should immediately offer to resume where I left off. If I watched yesterday's Yankees game, I should see an option on the home screen to watch today's. Roku and Apple TV famously center their attention around video playback, but their applications don't work with each other. I should be able to customize my video experience as flexibly as I can customize the desktop on my PC, the bookmarks in my web browser, and the speed dial on my telephone. Most single-purpose devices have common languages for referring to content and activities, but streaming video is still too abstract a concept to be a pushbutton operation.

When I call for "standards," I don't want one company to control all of my media. I know that iTunes videos will play on Apple TV, iPhone, iPad, and iTunes software on my PCs, but iTunes won't work with other devices such as my Xbox 360. Replacing one media juggernaut (Comcast) with another serves no purpose.

So far I've been reading and enjoying Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget, a "pro-human" polemic about recent movements in technology. Lanier discusses MIDI, originally developed for keyboards but shoehorned into styles of music that have more nuances than "key up" and "key down," as an example of an overly simplistic standard that we're now stuck with. Lack of standards drives innovation as there's an arms race for dominance of a new category, but it can also stifle adoption as customers fear spending money on a product which might be useless in a short time. (Exhibit A: The HD DVD player gathering dust under my TV.)

I'm really optimistic about the digital future of media, and not just because one category of it pays my rent. There's something magical about thinking of any song, TV show, movie, book, or video game and being able to consume it in minutes. The lack of standards for video represents a real limitation: given the choice of buying a DVD for $10 or a restricted digital copy for the same price, I'll choose the DVD every time until I can know that the next device I buy can play that digital copy. Here's hoping for a more accessible future.