Streaming Video: Turning Tides?

I have been thinking about streaming video, specifically studio owned content, for a while now. Most everyone agrees the challenge is not technological, but in the inertia/wariness of the studios. Considering what the iTunes is perceived to have done to the music industry (remember these are the folks who calculate losses due to piracy by multiplying number of pirated downloads by the retail price of an album), their fear is not unfounded. In my opinion, the thing they fear most is loss of control over content- so the studios invest in multi-million dollar movies, release them on streaming video, which can’t pay them too much and ends up hurting theater sales eventually causing huge losses.

They can elect to defend their last bastion against changing consumer preferences or attempt to change with them. Instant consumption is here to say and while every other product is changing to accommodate it, movies will find it hard to hold on to the 2000s. If the studios decide to embrace the change and, if they are suspicious of an external party gaining control, do it themselves, we might reach a win-win situation for all.

Consider a consortium of studios (kind of like how Visa was formed), that holds the rights of digital distribution and then uses existing channels (e.g., Netflix) to distribute them, paying them for those distribution services. Instantly, the power in the equation shifts back to the content owner. Now, with Louis C. K. demonstrating the possibilities with independent production, that enables some competition and disruption right in the content creation space, which is where it should be for those yearning for high quality content.

Recently Comcast jumped into the fray with Streampix and this is significant because it has roots within the industry (NBC) and could possibly use this model to pose a strong challenge to distribution only entities. Additionally, this enhances the vertical integration of an ISP with content, giving Comcast a boost. Most importantly, now a Comcast consumer is closer to consuming content in a form that truly on demand and relevant in the moment.


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Unsocial search

It’s been ages since I last wrote but when I read this story today (and it seems to be a gross misinterpretation of this story), I just had to comment.

Google recently introduced ‘Search Plus Your World’ to make search experience more personal. Now results will include results from the web and posts on Google Plus that you have access to. The motivation behind the inclusion seems fairly simple- relevance. When you search for a restaurant, you’re probably looking not just for its menu or location but also for reviews from people with tastes similar to yours (aka friends). Yeah, I get that some of our friends have horrible tastes and there recommendations do not count (or maybe they do, in a reverse way?).

The second motivation is probably to get the other side of the market- businesses- to adopt Plus. If you know your Plus page is going to be featured in search results (and seen by patrons), along with user generated content (reviews, recommendations, photos…), you’re likely to invest more in it. And it’s a win for the business too, in terms of higher customer engagement. This might just work, because the costs of switching (from Facebook) aren’t that high and Google, not Facebook, is still the dominant means of discovery.

Including posts from your network in results is an additional level of sophistication in the search product. From searching everything on your desktop to searching everything on the web, now Google can also search things that you care about. What if we had a single interface for all of this? The file systems on the various devices you use, your social network and the personalized web (the web, but the locations you frequent get a higher pagerank), all now accessible through a single interface (like the search feature on Android devices). So now when you visit that uber interface and look for your W2, you’ll know exactly which device you have an annotated copy on, and what your friends are saying about that tax consultancy and should you need it, where to download it.

That would be pretty neat, I think.

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Android and iOS: Nature vs. Nurture

So, the ongoing drama about iOS and Android just got a little bit more interesting with Apple suing Samsung for ‘blatant’ copying. Considering how these cases go (long) and the difficulty in interpreting and enforcing patents, it seems unlikely that deterrence was the real reason behind the suits. Business Insider has this great post about what could be the real reason behind it.

I don’t have anything new to say on the topic- only (what I think is) an interesting analogy. With it’s sheltered, guarded lifecycle and planned future direction, iOS can be thought of as having a protected ‘childhood’ with some chaperoned interaction with the other kids via the app store. Android, on the other hand, has had a relatively freer upbringing being provided just the basic care at home let shaped by the ‘world’.

If we accept this analogy for a moment, it becomes clear that the future does not necessarily belong to one or the other. One has a more curated approach that establishes a certain quality standard, while the other is more evolutionary in its development, letting the ‘market’ determine what it turns into. The problem with the first is that the future is usually unknowable, even for Steve Jobs, and the problem with the second is that the market, especially this one, is subject to disruption.

Market share studies show Android gaining ground on the consumer side of the market. I’d be interested in seeing how the producer side is reacting to it. Any networked market is supposed to have cross-side effects, so the increasing number of Android users should cause an increase in the number of Android apps available from popular sources. Meaning, a NetFlix app for Android cannot be that far away. What may delay it is the lack of standardization- supporting a bunch of Android implementations, each with its own idiosyncrasies is non-trivial. Something to think about if you’re Google.

Update: [was I right or what?]

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Still Searching

By now you have definitely gotten used to Google Instant (for the 5% or so times that you actually use the Google homepage) and regardless of what you think, Google seems to think that it’s a great development. I get the argument about the milliseconds saved aggregating to save hours. To make it sound even more attractive, multiply the hours saved by a “value created per hour” type metric and you have an actual dollar number to play with. Nothing wrong with that. Only, I would argue, as I did in the last post, that is not game changing.

An example of what is, was unveiled rather unceremoniously a few days ago with and the Easter egg. Of course, URL shorteners have been around for quite some time and on the surface there is nothing that great about Google’s service, but you add the QR code thing and suddenly things begin to look different. But wait, that’s not all- did you hear about WebP? So now, you have URLs encoded as images, smaller image files, a new video based image format (potentially with ways to embed search engine friendly tags) and we are staring disruption in the face.

Now companies can embed tons of information in product packaging- so you want to only buy products with a green supply chain? Scan that QR code and the product website will tell you what you want to know. Recalls, contamination and seamless tracking of paper coupons- all taken care of. Smaller image files in a friendly (by that I mean readable, and perhaps optimized for reading, by Google) mean quicker and more sophisticated image search results- of the Google Goggles kind. And that, I like.

UPDATE (10/18/2010) : Just saw this and it is beyond awesome.

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Search is dead. Long live search!

Numerous essays have been written about how search as we know it is no more an interesting problem. Web 2.0 (or is it 3.0 these days?) urged us to stop searching and start doing and we are rapidly approaching a stage where we will delegate a larger portion of decision making to “agents”. Consider how you might have watched a movie in 2001- you’d start by looking up listings on your favorite “portal” (my god! I haven’t used that term in some time!), find a theater you like, then see if there’s an enterprising startup that’ll let you buy tickets online (you’d be hard pressed to buy it on a phone then) and perhaps end up calling their reservations number. Contrast that with how you might do it today- you can say a location and movie name into your phone and it responds with a reservation. Siri, an iPhone app that lets you do this, was recently bought by Apple. Watch the fascinating story here-  

Search today incorporates an additional layer of algorithmic (I want to say trivial, but don’t want to trivialize its importance) decision making on top of discovery. So, while it might be dead in the sense of returning text results, it is hardly a solved problem. The problem just grew to include what you were going to do with the results. This is especially true of commoditized services and products. When you instruct an app like Siri to call you a taxi, you don’t really care whether it’s Yellow cab or Orange cab and therefore wouldn’t mind that decision being taken off your hands.

Don’t be surprised if the next time you ask Siri (or something like it) to buy you movie tickets, it responds by asking if you’d also like a reservation at your favorite restaurant since it happens to be on the way.

While there is definitely a trend towards discovering services rather than content, search for content is far from over. There is rich media, you know. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to search for all videos featuring Elmo? I suspect the answer might be in yet another video format, when I think we have too many already. While we are on video formats, here’s a thought- what if videos could be watermarked (not necessarily at the file format level, there are a zillion other zero cost ways- tainted pixels and all that) and then each time it’s uploaded to a video sharing site (pirated), a fraction of the ad revenue simply goes to the owner. Won’t that be cool?

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Net Neutrality, NOT!

The last two weeks have been buzzing with news about net neutrality and how it might be a thing of the past pretty soon. Now, this is as much a legal issue as it is philosophical and I will leave discussion of those facets to experts. I will, instead, talk about economics and I feel it has been neglected in the discussion so far.

Let’s define the actors first- there’s the content provider (think NBC or ESPN), content vendor (Hulu, YouTube), ISP (Comcast, TimeWarner) and you, the consumer. Currently, everyone pays the ISP based on usage and/or speed and this payment is content-agnostic. You stream HD videos for the same $/Kb/s rate that you pay for text emails. Obviously, you pay the same rate for 2 videos produced by different content providers. In a non-neutral Internet, ESPN can pay Comcast to accelerate its data packets through the network, so that ESPN subscribers on Comcast have a better user experience. That’s the basic premise.

Sound quite harmless? Consider this- the capacity of channels is fixed, if one stream is speeded up, something else must be slowed down. The question is what? That is the real debate. There is fear that ISPs (perhaps at the coercion of governments) may adopt a big brotherly approach towards the Internet and filter content. Apart from philosophical and political implications, this will result in stifled innovation since smaller companies will have their data rates stifled.

There can be no question that raised barriers to entry will be a major economic problem. Consumers, because they want high-speed HD videos from X, will want to be with ISP Y and just because Y has promised to speed up X, it will slow down the next, which might never catch on. That will be a terrible loss.

The optimist in me hopes that this might lead startups to build highly efficient websites, countering a roadblock with two innovations. But that will be hard work and if it does not happen, it will set us back a few years at least.

However, it seems to me that net neutrality is too perfect a concept to exist long term. Sooner or later power structures and coalitions will emerge and at the very least ISP/content provider relationships will become stronger. Think of the Comcast/ESPN relationship as being a precursor to that. Eventually, someone will be willing to pay more for a higher data rate on all packets stamped with a particular source IP, and someone will be willing to accept that payment. It also makes sense for applications like streaming HD video or sound to ensure a higher data rate. The policy debate centers around safeguarding social benefit.

Perhaps the solution lies in legislation, perhaps it lies within the businesses themselves. How about new pricing and bundling mechanisms? I’m thinking something like a 2Mbps base speed plus a guaranteed 4Mbps for videos streamed from Hulu. Might work, eh?

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Wave goodbye

Google does not plan to “continue developing Wave as a standalone product” anymore. Some think it was bad marketing that made Wave ebb (did you see that?). I, for what my opinion is worth, think it was that and bad product design.

Let’s start with the positives, and there were many. Google has the finest engineers on the planet and the quality (not necessarily freedom from bugs) of their products is a testament to that fact. Wave completely revolutionized collaboration and brought it home from the confines of the corporate world. Like Hölzle says, the technologies involved are completely reusable and will certainly impact the way communication/collaboration software is built in the future.

However, engineering and product design are fundamentally different in that most of modern software engineering follows a bottom up approach while any usable product simply has to be designed top down. By top down design, I mean start with thinking of the user’s interactions with the design, understand his expectations from those interactions and adhere strictly to those- even at the cost of making a technological compromise.

At the risk of sounding cliched, people don’t want tools, they want solutions. So, for example, instead of an elitist invite, I would have loved to see Wave appear as part of Google Apps as a collaboration tool for SMBs. For non-business users, I would have loved to see Wave as a tool for scheduling meetings- from movies to vacation trips. Now, its true some people were using it for those purposes, but the masses (from the mass adoption dept.) need to be given a little more direction. A Facebook app would’ve been even better.

My pet peeve with Google is that they leave so much on the table. Every brilliant product they design is left around in limbo while the smart ADD-afflicted kids go find something more exciting to play with. Why Youtube isn’t the de-facto standard for video-conferencing, I will never understand. [Think: cheap webcams, Youtube plug-in, closed captioning, searchable archives- you don’t need sophisitcated hardware for webconferencing any more] There, non-advertising based monetization.

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