Streaming Media, a State of Play

We’ve come a long way since your grandmother’s radio, your father’s bunny ears, and your childhood cable… or have we?

The radio was heralded as the downfall of print news media, cable as that of radio, but now the Internet threatens all of the above - or at least what remains of them. New technologies often have to fight an uphill battle to replace the old. Some of these battles are of technical nature, but more have to do with the business interests of the currently installed industry leaders.

Internet speeds in the United States, though nothing compared to those of many in Europe and Asia, have come a long way since the dial-up of your childhood. Increasing speeds have reached much of the rural and poor. The increase in bandwidth has paved the way for streaming content at fast enough speeds to make it a viable replacement to cable. Even with the increasing demand for HD content of ever-greater quality (e.g. 1080p, and now 4K), the bandwidth and compression technologies have managed to keep up surprisingly well. Whereas in my high school years I was resigned to patiently waiting for a grainy 5x5 inch video to buffer, I have now come to expect zero latency from the time I press purchase to the time my 1080p movie fills the 60 inch plasma.

Just as the publishers and media moguls have stunted the transition to e-readers and web content in their resistance to change and the uncertainty of their place in the new markets, so to have the cable companies, premium cable channels, and movie houses done whatever they can to ensure their relevance in the future. In both cases however, their reluctance to move forward and reinvent themselves as the landscape changes, will ultimately be their demise. Once relevant, regional newspapers and magazines are going bankrupt or being merged at an ever-increasing rate, or being purchased by billionaires with nothing else to do, like Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post. I’m not arguing that the large media companies of old are not valuable; on the contrary, I think that their content is sorely needed in today’s world – where quantity over quality often prevails. They choose not to play the game though. Instead, standing on the sidelines, they let the market move on, despite them. Why would you pay for the New York Times when you can find the same news story on one of the countless other news sites? Left propping up print media, are those who genuinely value the quality content that is provided. The problem is, the business model the industry was built on was predicated on the fact that the public needed them to get their news, which is simply no longer true.

Video content is not all that different. At first the only source of content was on a VHS tape, or from over-the-air. Then came cable. Cable meant that we could get great content into our homes, no static, no fuss – but it came with bloated offerings and complicated contracts. Cable news channels eventually started competing well with the larger traditional broadcast networks. Now the ‘big three’ (i.e. CBS, ABC, and NBC) are struggling to compete against FOX, AMC, CW, ABC Family, and countless others. We’ve effectively transitioned to cable, now for the next step. On-Demand media is the next logical step. The cable industry is built on the idea that we all subsidize the more niche networks and programs… very much like universal healthcare actually, cost sharing. Just as people grew tired of paying a subscription to the New York Times, only to get one or two articles that they really wanted to read, people are sick of paying for 200+ channels, when they only watch 3 shows.

The thing that the cable companies held over our heads for so long was that no one else could provide what they had. The security that the networks held was that no one else could afford quality TV production, and the primary asset of the large movie houses had was that blockbusters cost millions of dollars. While the industry resisted offering it’s content on any other platform aside from its cable offerings, Netflix was gaining steam. Netflix first tackled the rental market, leaving only Redbox behind, and now it will conquer cable.

Act One, Netflix Streaming: We got used to binge watching entire seasons all at once. No need to waste your time flipping through the channels trying to find something to watch, each time you sit down at your TV you know exactly what you’re going to be watching – the next episode of course. Never mind entire seasons, you can stream entire series from the pilot to the last episode and experience a certain satisfaction that there is no need to stress over catching the next episode at 5 pm every Wednesday, or even to worry about whether your DVR recording was canceled.

Act Two, Netflix Original Content: They finally figured out the advantages of making their own content. Making their own content means they don’t have to worry about the demands of the networks in their ever more seedy and contracts, or how long of a delay there is between its original airing and its release online. In a stroke of genius they’ve also opted to release entire seasons all at once - ripe for binge viewing and hooking viewers. Not to mention the fact that this is some damn good content. If you haven’t already heard of, and finished, Orange is the New Black or House of Cards, well, you must not be online.

I find it incredible that these cable networks insist on keeping their eyes averted from what is clearly the future of video consumption. HBO GO requires that you have an active cable subscription, with no option to just pay HBO directly. Hulu Plus (the networks’ paid solution to streaming TV) is now offering fewer and fewer episodes and fewer and fewer shows – which is why I just canceled it. I’ve officially been a ‘cord-cutter’ for 3 years or so now, opting for a more à la carte approach. Netflix and Hulu Plus, augmented with the purchasing of entire seasons on iTunes, have been more than capable of meeting my needs. It seems that things are getting worse rather than better though.

Streaming Bastards

My current frustrations are largely fueled by more and more networks pulling out of Hulu Plus, and of the ones left, the alarming new practice of only offering the most recent episodes. If I can’t see the first episode, then I wont start watching it now. Even in their own apps, or on their websites networks no longer seem to offer all the episodes form the first season on. I don’t understand what they’re thinking. If I haven’t seen anything from this season, or of the series at all for that matter, what makes you think I want to start with Season 6 Episode 14? It’s ludicrous, not to mention bad business!

The best part is that I’m willing to pay for these services… I’m willing to pay for Hulu Plus, so long as it offers me something of value, and I don’t mean 1,000s of anime videos. I’m willing to pay for HBO GO. I’d rather go to a nice steak house than get some prime rib from the local Golden Coral.

There’s no question where the market is going, the question is will they keep up? With Apple TV, Amazon Instant, Chromecast, Ruku, Smart TVs and Blu-ray players, consumers will have the option of watching 7 seasons of How I Met Your Mother on Netflix for $7.99, or watching True Blood, requiring a $130 cable subscription - I’m betting they choose the former.

There are plenty of paths forward for the cable companies and networks, the question is will they choose the wright one, or will they go the way of the newspaper?

The Last Computer

We’ve been saying that for a while haven’t we? A year and a half ago, when I bought my iPad, I was sure I would never buy another laptop… well, turns out I was wrong.

Last weekend I bought the new 13’ MacBook Air Haswell i7.  All the benchmarks put it either at, or above, the current MacBook Pro lineup, which is due for an update here shortly.  I was had previously convinced myself that I was going to be waiting for the new MacBook Pro Retina.  But, then I came to my senses.  Who am I kidding…?  My need for processing power has diminished exponentially in the past few years.  I certainly don’t have the time for gaming, nor the skill for video editing and creation.  Every once in a blue moon, I find myself on a photography kick again. 2D images however, RAW or not, require more RAM than CPU, and after all, anything would be a vast improvement over my ’09 iMac.

A confluence of circumstances led me to actually pull the trigger last weekend – not the least of which being my want to buy something, anything.  I had found myself using my desktop less and less, and I wasn’t sure if it was because it was so restrictive – stationary that is – or because it was slower to navigate to web pages than my iPad.  I was eventually able to convince myself that I was no different, required no more computing power, than the average user.  The vast majority of my time is spent either at work, or working on work… neither of which requires a great deal of computing power.  Whereas in my undergrad I found myself being thankful that I had one of the first dual core processors and was able to make use of multithreaded processes to run my reactor core simulations with expedience over the computers in the library, today I do little more than word processing and web browsing – all perfectly ordinary.

I did it.  I bought a new computer, even in the face of the impending future updates to the MacBook Pros.  As we shift more and more to cloud computing, the processing power of your own personal computer becomes less and less valuable.  We are shifting back to the earlier explored, and subsequently abandoned, model of the terminal and the mainframe.  The only difference being, that instead of the horrendous ‘HP thin clients’ and crappy remote desktops of your workplace, we’re using Google, Apple, and Amazon’s semi-infinite computing power and spare computing cycles, to do the hard work for our perfectly capable, but comparatively underpowered, machines.

Even the harder work of video and photo editing can now be done in the cloud.  Google+ is doing some amazing things in the cloud with your photos these days.  And these on demand computing resources increase the possibilities and usefulness of the thing that can be done with your photos.  Beyond the normal ho-hum import, algorithms can now determine which of the 15,000 photos you took last year were of the best quality and of the most interest.

Perhaps more importantly, this model, as it has always been, appears cheaper to the user.  One can now buy a Chromecast for $35 - an ingenious device.  The Chromecast is essentially a 35$ computer terminal that interfaces with the cloud.  Your computer sends the demand for content to Google, which then handles all the processing and encoding, and relays it down to the cheap device which is presumably connected to your very expensive display (i.e. a large TV).  Until now, at least personally, the advent of “Smart TVs” has been relatively uneventful, chiefly because of the incredibly underpowered TV processors that were handling the mess of a user interface.  No one wanted to use that shit… it was messy, clunky, and slow.  Google can do that all in the cloud for you now... it’s gorgeous, and you don’t even have to buy a new TV!

Do we really need all that processing power in our homes, or can we leave it to the cloud?

Just as more and more users are getting used to the idea that more and more of their personal data is stored in the cloud, we hear the stories of the NSA downloading the Internet in its entirety.  Now, my lack of confidence in the cognitive ability of most Americans means that I think the implications escape most, but for the savvy the implications are vast. 

“Big Data” is awfully similar to “Big Brother”.  This Orwellian scenario isn’t that far fetched though… even as a miscreant youth of 10, I was aware that the NSA would begin recording my calls if I mentioned certain key words, or that I might expect to see strange tracks in the carpet if my conversations were anything other than on the up-and-up; perhaps I saw too many movies.

Regardless of your feelings on who is, or is not, monitoring the Internet, a more basic question bothers me.  What if the cloud goes away?  What if access is somehow revoked…? Do you want to have the ability to process data regardless of the charity of large corporations?  Should such circumstances arise though, I’m sure my ability to share and crunch data in the cloud will be the least of my worries.

I am currently reading a Sci-Fi book – a genre that I do not often find particularly interesting: Pandora’s Star, by Peter Hamilton.  The book is incredible.  As with most Sci-Fi though, I find myself confused.  Confused that we have not yet arrived at an already conceived of, and in many senses, fully developed way of living.  Why am I not browsing the web via neural inserts?  Why is my e-butler not handling all communications and alerting me of any pertinent information?  Why am I not connecting to the ‘unisphere’?  Why is my entire life’s memory not being continually backed up in the case that I meat a demise, untimely or otherwise?

So many questions, so few answers, but yet despite the declining computer sales of late, the landscape remains relatively unchanged from my days a child, longing for my first laptop so I could SSH into some remote Linux server and IRC chatting with geeks around the globe.