Ten years ago, slow dial-up access limited most Internet use to e-mail and text-based web browsing. Now, with over 56 million broadband customers in the United States alone, the experience of watching video online has moved from the computer screen to the television. A wide range of consumer choices have sprung up as a result. Here are just a few ways home computer technology is moving into the family room:
Digital video recorders, or DVRs, are really just dedicated processors that do one task: organize and time-shift the viewing experience. Tivo is the most well-known, and later this year Comcast will add Tivo software to their set-top boxes, in addition to their existing DVR service, though it won’t be available locally right away. It’s also possible to use a home PC for the same task, connecting a Mac or a Windows Media Center-equipped system to a home television set.
But that’s a bit complicated for ordinary folks. At this month’s MacWorld conference, CEO Steve Jobs unveiled Apple TV, a set-top box with a 40 GB hard drive that streams movies and other content to digital TVs. It works with the latest generation of big screens, and is equipped with leading edge, high-speed 802.11n wireless. It’s also optimized for movies purchased from Apple’s iTunes Music Store.
Slingbox made a splash in 2005 with a candy bar-shaped unit that lets viewers watch their TV or Tivo anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the company unveiled Slingcatcher, which does the Slingbox trick in reverse, sending video from a computer to a television. It also features Clip+Sling, a video sharing utility sure to excite prospective YouTube impresarios.
Following YouTube’s runaway success, full episodes of prime time shows like CSI, American Idol and Grey’s Anatomy are now online, albeit with must-see commercials. Many of the same programs are offered uninterrupted on iTunes – for a price, typically $1.99 per episode. MSNBC’s web site shows ad-supported highlights from their news shows, as does Fox News; CNN has the ad-free, subscription-based “Pipeline.”
The emerging market is online movies, with NetFlix, which disrupted the video store world, leading the charge. The company, which pioneered “no return date” DVDs, recently started letting customers with certain types of accounts watch up to 18 hours of movies online. Competition may eventually come from long-time rival Blockbuster, but they’re busy trying to cut into the NetFlix rent-by-mail business.
Seattle-base Reel Time Rentals recently launched a movie streaming service; their selection doesn’t rival NetFlix, but it is technically impressive, with surprisingly good sound and picture quality. With a few copyright deals, Reel Time could be a factor in the online rental business.