Google Goes After The Big Guns

Broken just weeks ago is the stunning news that Google is possibly going to move into the Pay TV industry. The Big Guns like DirecTV and Dish network have probably been shifting uncomfortably in their Philip Starck executive chairs as the rumour spreads like wildfire across the online community. It coincides with the launch of the impressively high-speed Google Fibre in Kansas City, Missouri and across the river to Kansas City, Kansas too.

Frankly, I don’t know which is more ambitious. Google Fiber or a Google Pay TV product. With the former, the thought of creating Fiber-To-The-Home networks is prohibitively expensive unless you’re a telco driven to doing it to offer content services as well. America’s vast distance make this a great hurdle for Google, let alone any company attempting it. But a Google Pay TV business seems far more likely to benefit from this initiative as the Search Engine giant could deploy its YouTube service on top of a STB device, add Android Market apps and then unleash the benefits of Search within such an eco-system.

This could make for one of the more compelling products when it is fully-launched. Stay tuned.


An Irdeto vision for the Connected Home

Irdeto’s Plan for the Connected Home from Jonathan Marks on Vimeo.

Cedric Monnier of Irdeto talks to Jonathan Marks in this engrossing ‘story’ of how future ‘connected’ homes will consume video content, especially through a multi-screen approach. Even if you can watch the whole video take note of 12.45 to 14.35 onwards where he watches Rio on his iPad, pauses, then continues where he left on on his TV screen.

Google AdWords for Video: Another Game Changer?

Another Game Changer? Well, to begin with, Google just keeps on making it easier to put your ad in a video where your target market may just be watching and become receptive enough. Your audience. Your choice. Let’s see those FTA television boys beat this. And you get a USD100 coupon to begin with too.

Netflix Deal: Dreamworks Helping Users Cut The Cord?

The ‘Cutting The Cord’ momentum has been picking up steam over the last couple of year. First it started with Warner Bros announcing a potential long-term deal to stream movies over Facebook, starting with the Dark Knight. Then Miramax recently announced an FB App to stream its movies. Now Netflix has bounced back from recent criticism to announce this mega-deal with DreamWorks (get Netflix stock now!) worth at least USD30 million. The fact that DreamWorks chose the streaming method instead of continuing its Pay-TV deal with HBO is a surprise. “We are really starting to see a long-term road map of where the industry is headed,” the New York Times quoted Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, as saying.

Given that statement, is the announcement really a surprise? Netflix is going to be the dominant cord-cutting leader purely because of its audience base. It has 20 million subscribers and profits of USD161 million in 2010. It operates in 45 countries streaming its famous USD8 a month flat fee. Sure, it has rivals but none can currently compete on its decade-old proven platform to stream premium content effectively.

But Facebook will definitely become the second formidable cord-cutter. With 800 million users, most of whom are active, the idea of streaming movies for 30 Facebook credits (USD3) may prove too tempting for Hollywood studios. By virtue of being social media, the network effects of friends liking what friends are watching will create a viral solution (or called passive peer pressure), that’s unstoppable. The only problem Mark Zuckerberg faces is ensuring that a streaming service can be put into place in the social media site without major hiccups. But if he does, then watch out.

Netflix’s DreamWorks content will only start reaching customers in 2013. By then the floodgates would have opened for other content providers.

Asia-wide shouldn’t be late in following this trend because Netflix has stated that they will conquer the world territory by territory. And if not them, somebody else. Watch those Connected TVs get into the action and look-out for more intense diversification from Pay-TV content aggregators. ‘Cutting The Cord’ is a race and the content providers are front of the pack.

Censorship Of Entertainment: Is It Still Relevant?

Let’s be clear that this is just as much a business-related view as it is a social one. Censorship in Malaysia has been described by our government as a means to preserve our moral standards and racial stability. This covers all forms of communication and the arts in our country.

However, it remains to be seen whether censorship is really working today. Until the arrival of the internet, consumers really had no choice in this policy. Today, while the so-called mainstream avenues for broadcast entertainment are effectively policed we have to ask ourselves whether this is now redundant because of the prevalence of the internet in our lives. Specifically, customers can easily find the content in our channels through many of the internet’s file-sharing sites. This, in the context of Catch Up TV, makes our attempts to put censored TV content on a website look odd. When you do this with your product, you’re basically driving customers to file-sharing sites as a substitute. Or pirate box-set sellers around town. And its a viable one because they’re willing to wait for the satisfaction of the full, unadulterated show, even if they have to pay a small price.

This is not a plea for the ‘if-you-can’t-beat-them-then-join-them’ solution as it is a reminder to respect the omnipresence and neutrality of the internet. Take HBO’s The Wire as a perfect example. It truly is one of TV’s greatest dramas of all time. On Malaysian TV, its censored version seems almost meaningless to adult viewers. The true portrait of Baltimore’s street gangs remains veiled. And you’ll find lots of its best scenes on YouTube anyway for free. What if we were to make it available online as Catch Up TV without censorship? In the privacy of our computers, tablets and our bedrooms, no child can easily have access to it and, with the appropriate user login-in this can also be effectively controlled. The customer is happy and so will the broadcaster be.

For our government, accepting this fact is really to understand what citizens want and to remain relevant as a government created ‘by the people, for the people.’ In reality, everyone wins because file-sharing will be reduced and the allure of pirate DVDs will surely be reduced too. Everyone wins accept the real criminals. And the money the people are willing to spend right now (because they have no where else to go) can be spent on legitimate fees to content providers who pay the government legitimate taxes. Remember, many people are already doing this with iTunes or Apple TV and a few smart workarounds and this only goes outside the country.

Thus, a smart, controlled easing of censorship has many benefits and it’s time we did a thorough study of its merits. This is really the most important hurdle to overcome before broadcasters can acknowledge the need to make any online viewing experience a viable business.

Streaming To Your Benefit

I was chatting to the Asia-Pacific vice president of a CDN lately and naturally, we talked about live streaming protocols. The inevitable comparison between HTTP-based Smooth Streaming and RTMP/Flash Dynamic Streaming was brought up as well as, of course, the rising dominance of HLS (HTTP Live Streaming). Three streaming protocols being advocated by Microsoft, Adobe and Apple respectively. According to the VP, his discussions with professionals worldwide pointed to HLS as being the eventual undisputed leader, thanks to the tandem rise in Apple devices.

Let’s back-track to a streaming primer first. RTMP/Flash is currently the most widely-used protocol, with its plug-in resident in 98% of browsers worldwide. RTMP’s dynamic bit rate technology has just seen the release of FlashAccess as a DRM support, but this is still fairly new. End-to-end latency is still behind that of HTTP streaming. Not to forget, Flash requires dedicated and costly streaming media servers and is not exactly firewall friendly.

Microsoft’s product seems to be the best technology at first glance. It requires no special hardware, is firewall friendly and its obvious HTTP scheme allows edge-caching CDNs (which are simple HTTP proxy servers) like Akamai to reach deep and close to end-users. Coupled with its default fragment length of 2 seconds, Smooth Streaming is exactly what its name suggests. PlayReady also boosts its credentials as a solid DRM product.

The disadvantage lies in Microsoft’s Silverlight as being the foundation for the Smooth Streaming product. Silverlight’s plug-in must be downloaded by users for their browsers (an apparent turn-off) and approximately half the world’s browsers simply lack it. Although Microsoft claims this number is growing, having your competitor’s video player outnumber yours by two to one is a big disadvantage. Thus, Silverlight seems to be on the same stage that Beta was when it battled VHS for the home video market: the better product seems losing out to mainstream appeal.

Like what the VP said, Apple’s ascent as a device giant may take time, but it will bring HLS along to the summit with it. HLS has the benefits of being HTTP-based but provides for an MPEG-2 transport stream and an index file that is fragmented (its rivals are contiguous or connected as ‘one’ file). This offers various benefits. But each file fragment is 10 seconds long. Plus, the fragmentation requires an additional processing step so its end-to-end latency is the worst. But being made for Apple is the only good thing going for it; while Flash and Adobe slug it out on PCs, Steve Jobs has simply shut his rivals out by being the exclusive streaming platform for his devices.

Sure, Apple’s dominance is beyond the scope of this post (it has everything to do with that magical ‘network effects’ that Harvard professors love to talk about) but the fact is that by 2014 Admob projects 400 million iPads will be in the market (let alone iPhones and iPod touch devices) and this means the world had better sit up and take notice.

As broadcasters and online video professionals, I hear everyone take up a position on which is best. However, the true answer lies in your organization and what makes for the best approach to your customers. Invariably that means riding the wave of multiple technologies for the time being. At Astro, our online Silverlight player took the form of an iPhone App. But streaming to iOS devices is equally feasible by us simply pointing a separate HLS stream to a mobile-formatted site. We require our premium content to be protected and we’re fine with asking our paying subscribers to download the plug-in. We ensure them that the trade-off is the best streaming experience.

Also, if you’re a free-to-air broadcaster you might take a position that you don’t need DRM and that RTMP/Flash is your best bet. By all means, go for it. Just don’t forget that app for iPhone and iPad. There’s no way you can squeeze RTMP on a mobile site because Safari won’t support it (some CDNs will claim to be able to tunnel your RTMP stream through HTTP headers – that’s difficult and clumsy) so don’t bother.

Lastly, you could hedge your bets for HLS only. There’s nothing wrong with that if you think your customers are on the high-end and you want them to view your content from their iOS devices. The mobile site will be perfect, as will the two separate apps you’ll need if it comes to that (app or mobile site – that’s another interesting debate). If you don’t need authentication, then all the better. In years to come, iOS devices may become so dominant that you won’t even need to bother about Flash and Smooth Stream anyway.

So while I think the jury is still out on which is the better streaming technology, I feel it really boils down to what is best for your business model and your consumers. Until that verdict is finally handed down, I’d plea-bargain for safety and cover my streaming bases.

And… We’re Live!

There’s little doubt that live streaming is slowly creeping into Web TV in a bigger way. Advertisers and broadcasters and even niche content owners can venture into it without blowing their budgets. And the best part is when you stream live, you’re targeting a specific audience with player analytics that tell you more about their interaction that TV cannot. My personal experience with live streaming on a week-in, week-out basis has taught me a whole lot about the challenges and opportunities of live streaming. Firstly, it isn’t cheap to do these things so the opportunity itself has been that much rewarding. Plus, few people can boast of being able to stream 64 FIFA World Cup matches live successfully.

So every major online video platform is moving into this space. Possibly answering to the Ustream and Livestream challenge, YouTube’s recent foray into this territory hit the big time with the Royal Wedding. It just about set a world record that will take time to beat: 72 million views and 300,000 concurrent users. Indian Premier League cricket matches have pretty similar numbers too. YouTube has acknowledged it will go into more live streaming of major events this year. Check out their live streaming section here.

But just about anyone can do a live stream via their phone or computer webcam. Smaller companies also want to stream live and get their community of fans or followers to tune in online. And this is where the true concept of ‘live’ streams as web ‘channels’ soon becomes the mainstream. The challenge has been for content aggregators to do it successfully and match basic quality standards, plus provide interactivity that broadcasters just can’t match. The oft-cited iStream’s partnership with NBC Sports to bring Gridiron’s Sunday Night Football is a prime example.

If you’re interested in live streaming, don’t just stream an event without thinking about ways to keep interactivity going with your viewers. Here are my best bets for this:

1. Use live monitoring wherever possible to ensure your streams are hitting their target. Simple: open up your page to see trouble before your audience sees it and/or reacts negatively.

2. Use a back channel. You could use Twitter but you’ll need a hashtag if you have lots of volume. Even then, it may be difficult to sift through random tweets from people. Which brings me to…

3. Integrate a free chat app. There’s tonnes out there and the time on integration is worth it.

4. Use Facebook Connect. It may seem like an alternative to Twitter but the live status updates feed back to your fans’ walls. That pretty much opens the door to making your live stream more viral too.

5. Even better, read out the best comments or tweets. If your stream is talk-related, learn to see trending questions and use them to ask ONE summary question.

6. Moderate. You certainly don’t want trouble. But at the same time, prompt responses go down well your audience who then will get MORE involved. Or they’ll simply stay longer.

7. Analyse. Get involved with your analytics and see where the interests were or weren’t. This may involve putting proprietary analytical code in your player and isn’t cheap. But it’s well worth it, particularly if you want to monetize your target audience.

Whatever it is, keep the two-way communication going and respond to viewers’ questions or feedback. The future channels of the world are going off TV and into the web. We had better be ready at speaking our viewers’ language and catering to their demanding needs for involvement. Because that’s where the future money is.

For those wanting to know more about how ‘live’ streaming works, here is a great example.

Here’s a cool company providing live streaming solutions that are pretty reasonable.

Astro B.yond IPTV – Dawn of a new Era

We just launched Astro B.yond IPTV two days ago. Fittingly, the new service comes with our powerful tagline of ‘The One And Only Line You’ll Ever Need.’ One fibre link, three amazing services. First you get Astro B.yond, of course. That’s Astro’s HD offering with up to 12 channels in beautiful 1080i. Second, you get the PVR feature so that missing a show is never going to be a problem. Third, you get Video On Demand with some pretty diverse content ranging from Disney to Frank Darabont’s series The Walking Dead. Fourth, you get blazing high speed broadband with speeds up to 30 Mbps. Another offering – voice – will only be introduced sometime mid-year. Add the wi-fi router which currently comes free and you get sharing with other devices in the house. iPhone, iPad, MacBook. You name it. But with that it’s pretty much everything a home needs.

The launch opening gambit

Behind the scenes, it’s been a huge effort by the combined team from Astro and TimedotCom, who provide the fibre network with us. In particular, my team has been steadily testing and publishing various TV titles to our Video On Demand service, my principal scope of work. Our Consumer Technology team as a whole has been working non-stop to really get things going in the past few months, plus three days to get the decoders, TVs and Macbooks ready for the big launch itself. Of all the major product launches this one’s been the biggest and most satisfying to be a part of.

My boss, Shahrul, Director of Consumer Technology. With him is Gadget Nation host Adam Carruthers.

I’ve been tweeting about IPTV being the Game Changer that will transform the Malaysian living room entertainment experience all over again. And I mean it. No more appointment viewing on the TV. YouTube 1080p at blazing speeds. Get a connected TV and your surfing life starts cruising along. Living in Casa Desa means it will be a while before I get it but folks in Mont Kiara, Bangsar and Bukit Bintang will be able to enjoy it.

If you’re interested in getting a taste of Astro B.yond IPTV then visit the site here.

Why I Like Vimeo

I like Vimeo. Somehow, it doesn’t have the lowest-common denominator appeal of YouTube yet it provides a fair bit of quality viewing and user-friendliness. It’s also a great way to create your own content and upload it quickly for friends to be invited to watch. Here’s a sample of a simple piece of graphics that I created to show off what Vimeo can do. This is in 720p HD.

So Was I Right? – Closing 2010 Predictions

Did she or didn't she go mainstream?

Looking back at my original post a year ago, I made 4 predictions for New Media direction. I got a few scoffs at work and bets on future lunches were made. Let’s see if it all worked out.

1. Twitter Will Explode

And how. The flurry of news came in just in December 2010 when Twitter secured USD200 million of new investment, valuing the company at USD3.7 billion.  On top of Twitter’s current traffic of 3 billion API calls a day, also broke the 100 million unique visitors mark. Imagine its uniques if the various Twitter clients are factored in. Suffice to say, I think I’m right and a few people owe me lunch for betting against my word.

2. Content Charging Will Not Be a Pot Of Gold

Free content was the genie in the bottle for web content aggregating companies. The trouble was, how do your put that damn genie back in once they’ve rubbed the lamp for free too many times. Rupert Murdoch stated that ad monetization wasn’t sustainable and wanted content charging to happen in 2010 but that wasn’t to be. However, 2011 looks likely thanks to Apple’s announcement of a subscription service for content-related apps in its Apps Store. I’ve been saying to everyone that this is a game-changer and 2011 will start seeing media companies finally start to put that genie back in the bottle.

3. Mobile Video Viewing Will Rise Steeply (but not explode)

According to a Cisco Visual Networking Index, global mobile video views to YouTube tripled in 2010 to 200 million. This was by Google’s own admission. It can’t be anything to do with iPhone right? Of course it does. Enough said.

4. Olivia Munn Will Crossover To Mainstream TV

Well okay, that hasn’t happened yet for a lead role. But her cameo-ish appearances in Chuck and Accidentally On Purpose does qualify so we can break even on that, I reckon! Her movie career isn’t looking too bad either so good luck to our web wonder. Here’s to more success to her than Justin Bieber.

Time for new predictions in 2011. Stay tuned.