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Intel’s reported exit from connected TVs: long live STBs

I feel like I've had the discussion on whether the future of TV includes STBs a thousand times at least. I seem to conclude yes about half the time, then no the other half.

I joined geekdom in the late eighties so my technological world vision was built around the Wintel duopoly. Remember when Microsoft brought out windows 3.1 (the first version that really worked). Most PCs needed to be changed. Then again when Intel came up with a new chip, twice as fast as the one 18 months ago, software vendors like Microsoft, Adobe, or game developers would quickly bring out « great » new features using all that power.

Asked whether the TV has an STB in its future, my answers always refer back to those simple old Wintel days: as long as people like NDS can come up with hungry UIs that require ever more processing power under the hood, then yes. Indeed the NDS latest Snowflake UI is reputed to be just one such power hungry killer-application.

Upgrading the TV’s processing power has always been harder than to swap out an STB. Traditional business models usually have it that a 500€-1000€ TV set belongs to the subscriber whereas the 50€-200€ STB belongs to the operator. In the days before connected TV and IP, the shelf life of a box was about 7 years. If the accelerated rate of change means that this has to be shortened to say 3 years, so be it. Lowering hardware prices will absorb a good part of the extra cost and the business model can take on the extra 10-15€ a year that shortened amortizations adds.

We had a changing world that I made some kind of sense out of with my Wintel analogy. But Intel then goes and exits connected TVs. How can that fit into the picture?

Despite their vested interest to sell to every part of the value chain, Intel have basically told the market that they believe their future is in the STB and companion devices, not the TV itself. The extra shelf life of TVs could be the culprit here. I'll be looking out for the roadmaps of other silicon vendors to see if they agree. But Intel carries so much weight that their analysis will affect the market even if they are wrong in the long term.

Thank you Intel for helping me to treat my split-personality disorder. I am no longer wavering and clearly do see an STB in the TV's future at least for the next couple of years. Other stakeholders were already pointing in this direction like Microsoft's with their big X-Box push in the TV space and Apple's non-entry into TV sets despite persistent rumors.

Jamie Beach of IPTV News recently pointed out to me how Google's Android strategy seems to be heading towards some kind of convergence with the TV. In the short term that will probably mean that Google's role in the TV will be played out on android companion devices only. It'll still be a couple of years before they get the lean back STB or TV OS sorted.

If anybody at Samsung, Philips, LG, Toshiba, Sony or any other set maker was worried about Intel's move, they are wrong. Their Connected TV strategies may need to be scaled down, but as soon as I have some spare cash I can now go and buy a new TV, based on its screen qualities and stop worrying about its OS, processing power or Apstore... I worry about the connectedness of my TV set itself when I next upgrade in 2 to 3 years.

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Contrasted feelings, unpacking my Apple TV II

Just to set the scene, I’ve only been an Apple User for just over 2 years, so I still feel pretty novice: my love/hate relation with Apple products still oscillates widely from just loving the way it all works out-of-the-box to really hating how boxed-in it makes me feel. Apple TV II consolidated that that duality of feeling.

The biggest thrill with Apple products is usually unpacking it, and just switching it one WITHOUT reading any manual EVER.

This time, the packaging was merely OK: I felt a bit disappointed, as Apple had raised my expectations from previous products starting with an iPod in 2004 that really blew my mind. Even the little box my iPhone 4 came was so cute that my son asked my to keep it to decorate his room. Apple TV’s box has already been thrown out.

The switching-on ceremony however did stand up to expectations.

Only 10 seconds after having plugged in the power, Ethernet and HDMI cables, I was browsing through movies on my 46” LCD. Admitedly not everyone may have a spare Ethernet cable right next the TV, so I wonder how much more it would of cost Apple to through Wifi in [oops correction: there of course if Wifi, thanks Graham].

But back to those first few seconds. As usual the shear simplicity of the user interface is astounding. I just don’t get it: Why oh why are thre so many more buttons on other remote controls.

The only traditional TV player to have tried something like this (i.e. a 6 button remote) is NDS with Snowflake and they’ve been demoing for years – the situation must be dire to the extent they felt the need to recently release a press statement about some small operator in a very small market planning to launch with it.

Something counterintuitive is happening here, and I still don’t understand. I feel no doubt at all in my guts that this navigational paradigm is superior, yet the market is saying something else. Either one of us is wrong, or I’m missing something. Please comment if you have any ideas on this.

Back to Apple TV itself again, beyond being intuitive it is also kind of fun. Streaming isn’t yet rate-adaptive so when you ask to watch a trailer it takes a while to buffer, but that's only a few seconds for me, as I live in the city with a decent DSL connection, but I would guess means the AppleTV isn’t really much fun if you don’t have at least 3 or 4 spare megabits.

From a content perspective, I haven’t done a proper analysis of what studios are represented in which proportion (I do that when I’m paid by clients hint hint), but the overall impression is that for the French market at least, is that iTunes really has got a critical mass of exciting blockbuster stuff. There were scores of movies I’d like to see. What I know is once I’ve seen those, how fast does it refresh … time will tell.

Moving to the Internet section I was dazzled by the ease of linking to my Flickr account (nebul2, my photos are public). But frustrated that the mobile.me connection didn’t work – very un-apple to have such a overt bug with no clear error message.

Linking computers was as easy as pie, but epitomised the duality of Apple. The light side of the force was that very ease: just share stuff on you computers WITH iTunes software … and it appears seamlessly on you TV. But the dark side of the force is just there: iTunes or be damned.

Things got even more contrasted when I tried the all-new AirPlay. Again from within iTunes on my Mac or indeed my iPhone, it was fantastic. But even on the Mac you can’t use any other software (maybe I missed something, but why are photos easy to send from the iPhone to Apple TV but not from iPhoto on the Mac?!?). I’ve always felt I understood the “walled garden” expression, but actually I hadn’t. Incumbent Telcos or restrictive mobile operators feel like Wikileaks compared to using AirPlay. It’s a step too far for me in Apple-only land.

I bought a brand new MacBook Air, at around the same time Apple introduced the Apstore to the Mac. << Don’t just download stuff from the Internet, [imagine the snake from the Jungle book saying this next part] trusssst in me, I’m Apple, I’ll let only get the besssst sssoftware that I have persssssonaly checked (and taken a cut from).>>

I again feel torn apart by the beauty of my new toy and the way its closing down into a scary world of big-brother Apple.

But here it must be that I’m just too old-fashioned. For my kids, the open Internet is reverting back to what it broke out of when the Compuserve’s of the world represented a walled-garden Internet.

Maybe Apple is just showing us a way back to the future, but I hope not, I love Apple but it’s getting harder to swallow, and yes you’ve guessed where this is going: I don’t want to end up like Adam.