January 12, 2009

6 ways a DVR is better than hulu

Filed under: consumer electronics, hulu, media, movies, television, video — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:50 pm

I recently wrote 10 reasons why hulu is better than a DVR. Here are six advantages that DVRs have over hulu.

  1. You get higher quality video. If you have an HD source, chances are the video quality on your DVR will be much better. Hulu offers a very small selection (13 full episodes last I checked) of HD programming. Note that some local TV distributors charge extra for HD service. With AT&T u-Verse, the $15 for the DVR becomes $25 when you add HD.
  2. It’s designed for your living room. DVRs, despite the horrible UIs, were designed to be controlled from a distance and connected to your TV. It’s still only the geek set that will bother connecting their PCs to a TV for hulu. There’s hope though: Boxee is bringing hulu and other Internet video to a variety of platforms. A killer device would be a DVD player or game console that has boxee/hulu built in, similar to the LG blu-ray/Netflix player. (Boxee itself is based on XBMC Media Center, which runs on XBox.)
  3. It’s more network efficient. This isn’t a concern for most people today. But it may become one as incumbent TV providers wake up to the threat of Internet video. With a DVR, it doesn’t matter to the cable company how many people watch a show; the more the merrier. With hulu, every stream takes incremental bandwidth. Comcast is capping monthly bandwidth at 250 GB. It’s unlikely that ordinary Internet usage would come anywhere near that, but two or three people regularly watching hulu could hit that.
  4. You can record virtually anything. Although some DVRs restrict recording of some content (e.g. pay-per-view movies), the rule-of-thumb is that you can record whatever comes down the pipe. Hulu’s content comes from a select (though large) list of partners. You can’t, for example, watch ABC shows on hulu. Partners have Byzantine restrictions on when content appears. While many shows appear on hulu the day after broadcast, others appear eight days later. (House, Monk, Psych) I strongly suspect that this is because of Nielsen’s Live plus 7 TV ratings.
  5. You can keep what you record as long as you like. DVRs don’t generally expire content; as long you have free space you can keep it around. Or until you move and have to give the DVR back to the cable company. Most of the recent content on hulu expires within a few weeks.
  6. You can skip commercials.

I also came up with two more pluses for hulu:

  1. You get bite-sized content. Many of the shows I watch, such as talk shows or variety shows, are really collections of discrete elements. With hulu, I can get to just the parts I want easily. I don’t have to fast forward through the inane comedy bits to get to an interview I want to see.
  2. You get uncensored content. hulu offers content you won’t see on basic cable, such as scenes with nudity or bad language. (You must be logged in to see these.)

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January 8, 2009

Tellme about Ford

Filed under: cars, launchpad, microsoft, mobile, mobile search — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:37 am

Yesterday marked my one year anniversary at Tellme. I spent the day where I started a year earlier: at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Coincidentally, Ford officially announced its next generation of SYNC, which incorporates Tellme services. It’s the project I’ve been working on. The first version of SYNC, which allows users to control their cell phones and MP3 players, has been tremendously successful for Ford. Cars equipped with SYNC have been selling nearly twice as fast as those without. The new  features let motorists search for businesses, get turn-by-turn directions, check traffic and get other information using just their voice. The Ford press release goes into depth on the features.

Microsoft’s Robbie Bach, president of the entertainment and devices division, referenced the service as part of Steve Ballmer’s opening keynote.

Robbie Bach introduces enhancements to Ford SYNC (photo from Engadget)

Robbie Bach introduces enhancements to Ford SYNC (photo from Engadget)

January 6, 2009

Tech lessons from a trip to Borders

Filed under: customer service, iphone, mobile, mobile search, search — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:42 pm

On my way home from work today I decided to stop by Borders to pick up a guidebook for my birthday trip to Mexico City.

Step 1: Figure out if the Borders near my house is open. I called 1-800-555-TELL using my car’s Bluetooth to get the phone number. Tellme connected me to my neighborhood Borders. “Thank you for calling Borders… for our store hours and locations press 1.” FAIL. With more people relying on cell phones and increasing legislation requiring hands-free systems while driving, Touch Tone-only systems need to go away. After 2 1/2 minutes and three full loops of the menu I was finally connected to the store.

SnapTell screenshotStep 2: Arrive at the store and look for a guidebook. No one was behind the information desk. Two computer terminals allowed me to search for a book. The search results include books that are only available online, aren’t yet published and a few that are “likely available in store” in a seemingly random order. FAIL. Gee, wouldn’t you want to sort the books that I can walk out with first? Otherwise, why am I here? The screen says my book is in section “B020,” with no indication of where that it is.

Step 3: I notice on my way out of the store a book in the bargain bin on Sonoma wineries. I figure this is the perfect opportunity to try out SnapTell, an iPhone comparison shopping application. Take a picture of a book, CD or DVD and SnapTell shows you how much that item sells for online. (It’s like Shazam for shopping.)

My first picture wasn’t good enough; I got an error message. Second time was a charm, despite taking a picture of a book that was too wide to fit in the frame. I could scroll through a list of prices from online merchants.

While I was impressed with the image recognition, the data quality needs work. The results included older editions of the book; the 1 cent price shown on the summary screen was for an older edition. Even when the current edition was shown pricing didn’t correlate to the merchant. Clicking on the $1.99 link pictured shown showed a price at the merchant of $6.99.

Data errors like this aren’t unusal in large databases, but I suspect will improve over time.

SnapTell is an interesting tool for research. And with access to location information, they could build a nice database of what people are searching for and from where.

That’s assuming that stores like Borders improve service to the point that I’ve got other reasons to come in than “I can’t wait for shipping.”

Disclosure: I work for Tellme, a company that makes speech recognition systems for many large companies. I have a bias against poorly implemented telephone systems.

January 5, 2009

VOIP: Alive, well and full of potential

Filed under: im, instant messaging, microsoft, mobile — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:22 pm

Om Malik asks on his blog whether VOIP is dead or alive. It’s an interesting question and the answer is very different depending on how you define VOIP.

Many people associate VOIP with cheap voice calls using the Internet. This is what many early VOIP pioneers (Vonage being the biggest name) gravitated toward. They did this for one big reason: that’s where the money was. You could deliver services comparable to what PSTN providers were charging $40-$60 a month for at a much lower cost. The arbitrage opportunity provided a clear value proposition and revenue stream.

Unfortunately for Vonage and the others, that’s also where the sleeping giants were, with billions in revenue they needed to protect. Incumbent telcos have largely marginalized the standalone cheap call providers through more aggressive pricing, bundling, regulatory hundles and IP claims. At the same time, incumbents and cable operators have used VOIP technologies to lower their own operating costs.

But that’s also the least interesting, transformative aspect of VOIP. If you expand the definition to include voice paired with other aspects of communication such as presence and video, things get a lot more interesting — and we’re just beginning to see how transformative that cane be.

Skype has been a key innovator in this space. Over New Year’s, we introduced my parents to Skype. My mom could see our family in India, whom she hadn’t seen in months. My parents are very much laggards when it comes to technology; they don’t know how to text. But the clear value of Skype’s voice and video service had my dad pulling out his camera to buy a Webcam.

For work, I use Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 to interact with colleagues. No matter where I or my colleagues are in the world, I can see what they’re up to and communicate with them using text, voice or video. Or all of the above.

Communicator integrates with Outlook so I can see when they’re in meetings and don’t interrupt them. There’s also integrated conference calling. My office “phone” rings on my laptop. (It also rings on a dusty hunk of plastic on my desk, which I haven’t touched in months.) It’s the most powerful communications tool I’ve used.

There are two big challenges for this definition of VOIP: getting the technology in front of nongeek users and migration of more and more communications to wireless, where the carriers rule with an iron fist.

I’ll talk about each of these in future blog posts.

January 2, 2009

10 ways hulu is better than a DVR

Filed under: consumer electronics, hulu, media, movies, television, video — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:39 pm

I’ve been using a DVR for at least 8 years. I started off with a Replay 2020 and have since used other Replays, TiVos and cable company DVRs. Now my primary DVR is the whole home DVR that comes with AT&T’s u-Verse service.

DVRs have transformed the way I and many others watch TV. Besides breaking news and sports, I rarely watch live television.

But less than a decade after their inception (and before they’ve reached 50% penetration) they’re headed the way of the dodo, vinyl and cassette tape. The DVR’s kissing cousin — placeshifter Slingbox — will have an even shorter life.

The reason: Hulu. Here are 10 reasons why Hulu is better than a DVR:

  1. It’s free. DVRs typically cost $10-$15 a month for service. For a TiVo, add $150-$600 in hardware costs. Many people can use hulu to ditch their cable TV subscription altogether and save $60-$75 a month.
  2. You don’t have to program it. Sure, programming a DVR is a lot easier than programming a VCR. But it still takes work. And with 300+ channels, a lot of scrolling. Most DVR UIs are atrocious. While Web interfaces can make things easier, AT&T’s interface (powered by Yahoo! and recently redesigned) feels like Web 2004.
  3. You don’t have to manage it. A lot of the UI on a DVR is devoted to managing conflicts among recordings, managing recording space, etc. Many a user forum has been devoted to identifying the logic behind what gets recorded and deleted on DVRs. I just know that on my AT&T DVR, things don’t work the way I’d expect. (e.g. deleting programs I’ve watched before deleting programs I haven’t watched.)
  4. It’s infinite. You have access to thousands of TV shows and movies, way more than a DVR can hold. That’s only going to expand as programmers recognize the power of hulu and television on the Internet.
  5. You don’t have to know what you want to watch beforehand. If you hear about a program you’re interested in, you can go to Hulu and watch it.
  6. It has fewer ads. For many people, skipping ads is a big part of the appeal of a DVR. But it’s still a hassle. You have to pick up the remote at the right time and you usually end up watching 7-10 seconds of ads anyway because things don’t line up right. I’d rather sit through one 30 second ad. This isn’t bad for advertisers or TV networks either. (More on that later.)
  7. It helps you discover. Hulu recommends shows you might be interested in. Most DVRs don’t. (TiVo is a notable exception.)
  8. It’s social. You can share programs that you like with your friends on social networks.
  9. Your shows won’t be screwed up due to cable system outages, storms, power outages or a football game that goes long.
  10. It’s searchable. As a search geek, I’ve been impressed with the quality of Hulu’s search interface. They’ve made it easy to find content you want.

There are some advantages that DVRs have over hulu. I’ll write about those later. In the meantime, check out my list of ways to improve hulu.

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