TechnologyTell

Essay: Big Changes Are Coming To Your Living Room

Sections: Internet, Movies, TV

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How many of these apps do you use?

The future of TV probably looks more like this than you’d think

There’s something going on in the living room, something way beyond 3D, smart TV, and other television innovations of the past few years. I’ve got a feeling that, years from now, 2013 will be remembered as the year when everything changed with the way we experience television in the home.

Look at all the major developments that have been going on the last few months, and the battles being fought, from the market place to the course to the war of ideas:

– The cable television model is one of those things that everybody hates, yet nobody ever thinks they can do much about. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is once again making noises about pushing for a government mandating of la carte cable. And while almost no one disputes that charging people only for the channels they want is much more fair than the current model, it doesn’t appear such a thing has much legislative support- and even if it it did, a la carte cable would probably lead to the end of a whole lot of channels that you watch.

Cable is probably here for the long haul, but little things are happening on the margins that point us towards a distant possible post-cable future.

On top of always-rampant content piracy, there’s the rise of Netflix-only and Hulu-only programming, which could one day lead to all of the good shows becoming available on streaming services instead of cable channels. A whole lot of people are ready, in fact.

– Cord-cutting- the phenomenon of consumers eliminating cable service in favor of consuming content over the Internet only- has been talked about for a long time theoretically, without actually seeming to happen in large numbers. But that’s starting to change: according to a report in early August by analyst Craig Moffett, cord-cutting was long an “urban myth,” but it’s actually starting to become a statistically significant phenomenon.

One thing that could make cord-cutting easier is the rise of Aereo, the over-the-air TV streaming startup backed by longtime media mogul Barry Diller. Aereo has been sued across the board by TV networks but mostly won the early legal skirmishes, as it continues its nationwide expansion.

– But that’s not the only big legal battle currently being fought between Hollywood and the consumer electronics industry. Dish Network earlier this year introduced the second edition of the Hopper, a DVR device featuring two game-changing functions: Its built-in Sling technology allows for streaming of DVR’d content to mobile devices and computers, while the Hopper’s AutoHop feature enables automatic skipping of  all commercials.

That latter function has led Dish into a multi-front legal battle with the same TV networks battling Aereo; Dish has won the early battles so far, and I’m imagining Dish’s competitors – Comcast, Verizon, DirecTV- will come up with something kind of like it before long. TiVo, in fact, recently introduced a new DVR that incorporates a Sling-like technology. 

– Indeed, the cable companies are starting to get in the act. One area of technology that hasn’t seen much innovation in the last few years is the cable box, a topic which CEA head Gary Shapiro has been going on about this for a long time, as he believes the lack of competition is the reason for substandard, ugly cable boxes- much the way phones were ugly and dysfunctional back when the phone companies controlled them.

Chances are, if you have cable, you get it through a big rectangular box that’s ugly, takes a long time to turn on, and doesn’t change channels the way you want it to.

That’s starting, at last, to change. Comcast recently introduced the X1 platform, and has given it a huge promotional push. Not only does the box look better, but the interface is actually modern and allows for easier on-screen searches than before. If even Comcast is bringing its experience into the 21st century, you know the battle is on.

– But that’s not to say those are the only competitors fighting for the television content space. Apple, of course, has been rumored for a big jump into the living room, whether its with its own TV or some other type of technology. Microsoft and Sony, judging by everything they’ve said so far about this fall’s release of new gaming consoles, will incorporate more and more TV/entertainment features.

– Then there’s Google. In late July, in one of the biggest surprises of the year, Google released the Chromecast, a new dongle which allows for simple streaming of video and apps from mobile devices to the TV. It can push content from Netflix, YouTube and the Google Play store for now, with more apps to come.

The device was announced, released days later at the ridiculously low price point of $35, and sold out all over; I called Best Buy, was told they gotten nine in that morning, and they were all sold out by the time I got to store about an hour later.  For Google, coming off the flop of Google TV and an extremely checkered record when it comes to hardware electronics products- the huge success was a big surprise. Now there’s talk about Chromecast functionality being built into TVs.

– But that’s nothing compared to what could be the biggest game-changer of all: The Wall Street Journal reported in July that Intel is working on DVR technology that will host every piece of television programming in the world in the cloud. That way, in a strange, futuristic hybrid of DVR and on-demand, subscribers will be able to grab any show they missed, even if they didn’t remember to record it. It will also allow viewers to turn on a show in the middle and rewind to the beginning.

In other words, the existing rules of DVR time and space will no longer apply. We don’t know how far away this is, or if the inevitable legal tangles over rights fees can be worked out, but- wow. That sounds incredible.

 I don’t know how all these legal, commercial and technological battles are going to shake out, and neither do you.But we do know that virtually every major player in technology, electronics and entertainment is working on this stuff, and even if half of what’s described here actually comes to fruition, it’s likely going to lead to some exciting stuff. 

(Note: this column appears in the September issue of Tell magazine.) 

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