January 17, 2017

The Future of Smartphone Platforms

In 1985, I got my very first home computer: a Commodore Amiga 1000. At the time, it was awesome: great graphics, great sound, “real” multitasking, and so forth. Never mind that you spent half your life shuffling floppy disks around. Never mind that I kept my head full of Epson escape codes to use with my word processing program to get what I wanted out of my printer. No, no, the Amiga was wonderful stuff.

Let’s look at the Amiga’s generation. Starting with the IBM PC in 1981, the PC industry was in the midst of the transition from 8-bit micros (Commodore 64, Apple 2, Atari 800, BBC Micro, TI 99/4a, etc.) to 16/32-bit micros (IBM PC, Apple Macintosh, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Acorn Archimedes, etc.). These new machines each ran completely unrelated operating systems, and there was no consensus as which would be the ultimate winner. In 1985, nobody would have declared the PC’s victory to have been inevitable. Regardless, we all know how it worked out: Apple developed a small but steady market share, PCs took over the world (sans IBM), and the other computers faded away. Why?

The standard argument is “network effects.” PCs (and to a lesser extent Macs) developed sufficient followings to make them attractive platforms for developers, which in turn made them attractive to new users, which created market share, which created resources for future hardware developments, and on it went. The Amiga, on the other hand, became popular only in specific market niches, such as video processing and editing. Another benefit on the PC side was that Microsoft enabled clone shops, from Compaq to Dell and onward, to battle each other with low prices on commodity hardware. Despite the superior usability of a Mac or the superior graphics and sound of an Amiga, the PC came away the winner.

What about cellular smartphones then? I’ve got an iPhone. I have friends with Windows Mobile, Android, and Blackberry devices. When the Palm Pre comes out, it should gain significant market share as well. I’m sure there are people out there who love their Symbian or OpenMoko phones. The level of competition, today, in the smartphone world bears more than a passing resemblance to the competition in the mid-80’s PC market. So who’s going to win?

If you believe that the PCs early lead and widespread adoption by business was essential to its rise, then you could expect the Blackberry to win out. If you believe that the software/hardware coming from separate vendors was essential, then you’d favor Windows Mobile or Android. If you’re looking for network effects, look no farther than the iPhone. If you’re looking for the latest, coolest thing, then the Palm Pre sure does look attractive.

I’ll argue that this time will be different, and it’s the cloud that’s going to win. Right now, what matters to me, with my iPhone, is that I can get my email anywhere, I can make phone calls, and I can do basic web surfing. I occasionally use the GPS maps, or even watch a show purchased from the iTunes Store, but if you took those away, it wouldn’t change my life much. I’ve got pages of obscure apps, but none of them really lock me into the platform. (Example: Shazam is remarkably good at recognizing songs that it hears, but the client side of it is a very simple app that they could trivially port to any other smartphone.) On the flip side, I’m an avid consumer of Google’s resources (Gmail, Reader, Calendar, etc.). I would never buy a phone that I couldn’t connect to Google. Others will insist on being able to connect to their Exchange Server.

At the end of the day, the question isn’t whether a given smartphone interoperates with your friend’s phones, but whether it interoperates with your cloud services. You don’t need an Android to get a good mobile experience with Google, and you don’t need a Windows Mobile phone to get a good mobile experience with Exchange. Leaving one smartphone and adopting another one is, if anything, easier than transitioning with a traditional not-smartphone, since you don’t have to monkey as much with moving your address book around. As such, I think it’s reasonable to predict, in ten years, that we’ll still have at least one smartphone vendor per major cellular carrier, and perhaps more.

If we have further consolidation in the carrier market, that would put pressure on the smartphone vendors to cut costs, which could well lead to consolidation of the smartphone vendors. We could certainly also imagine carriers pushing on the smartphone vendors to include or omit particular features. We see plenty of that already. (Example: can you tether your laptop to a Palm Pre via Bluetooth? The answer seems to be a moving target.) Historically, the U.S. carriers are somewhat infamous for going out of their way to restrict what phones can do. Now, that seems to be mostly fixed, and for that, at least, we can thank Apple.

Let a thousand smartphones bloom? I sure hope so.

Hulu abandons Boxee—now what?

In our last installment, I detailed the trials and tribulations of my attempt to integrate legal, Internet-sourced video into my home theater via a hacked AppleTV, running Boxee, getting its feed from Hulu.

One day later (!), Hulu announced it was all over.

Later this week, Hulu’s content will no longer be available through Boxee. While we never had a formal relationship with Boxee, we are under no illusions about the likely Boxee user response from this move. This has weighed heavily on the Hulu team, and we know it will weigh even more so on Boxee users.

Our content providers requested that we turn off access to our content via the Boxee product, and we are respecting their wishes. While we stubbornly believe in this brave new world of media convergence — bumps and all — we are also steadfast in our belief that the best way to achieve our ambitious, never-ending mission of making media easier for users is to work hand in hand with content owners. Without their content, none of what Hulu does would be possible, including providing you content via Hulu.com and our many distribution partner websites.

(emphasis mine)

On Boxee’s blog, they wrote:

two weeks ago Hulu called and told us their content partners were asking them to remove Hulu from boxee. we tried (many times) to plead the case for keeping Hulu on boxee, but on Friday of this week, in good faith, we will be removing it. you can see their blog post about the issues they are facing.

At least I’m not to blame. Clearly, those who own content are threatened by the ideas we discussed before. Why overpay for cable when you can get the three shows you care about from Hulu for free?

Also interesting to note is the acknowledgment that there was no formal relationship between Hulu and Boxee. That’s the power of open standards. Hulu was publishing bits. Boxee was consuming those bits. The result? An integrated system, good enough to seriously consider dropping your cable TV subscription. Huzzah.

Notable by its absence: Hulu content is also supported on the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 via PlayOn, which serves pretty much the same niche as Boxee. Similarly, there’s an XBMC Hulu plugin (recall that Boxee is based on the open-source XBMC project). We don’t know whether Hulu will continue to work with these other platforms or not. Hulu seems to be taking the approach of asking Boxee nicely to walk away. Will they ask the other projects to pull their Hulu support as well? Will all of those projects actually agree to pull the plug or will Hulu be forced to go down the failed DRM road?

It’s safe to predict that it won’t be pretty. My AppleTV can run XBMC just as well as it can run Boxee, which naturally returns us to the question of the obsolescence of cable TV.

There’s a truism that, if your product is going to become obsolete, you should be the one who makes it obsolete. Example: hardwired home telephones are going away. In rich countries, people use their cell phone so much that they eventually notice that they don’t need the landline any more. In poor countries, the cost of running wires is too high, so it’s cheaper to deploy cellular phones. Still, guess who runs the cell phone networks? It’s pretty much the same companies who run the wired phone networks. They make out just fine (except, perhaps, with international calling, where Skype and friends provide great quality for effectively nil cost).

Based on what I’ve observed, it’s safe to predict that cable TV, satellite TV, and maybe even over-the-air TV, are absolutely, inevitably, going to be rendered obsolete by Internet TV. Perhaps they can stave off the inevitable by instituting a la carte pricing plans, so I could get the two cable channels I actually care about and ignore the rest. But if they did that, their whole business model would be smashed to bits.

For my prediction to pan out, we have to ask whether the Internet can handle all that bandwidth. As an existence proof, it’s worth pointing out that I can also get AT&T U-verse for a price competitive with my present Comcast service. AT&T bumps up your DSL to around 30Mb/sec, and you get an HD DVR that sucks your shows down over your DSL line. They’re presumably using some sort of content distribution network to keep their bandwidth load reasonable, and the emphasis is on real-time TV channel watching, which lowers their need to store bits in the CDN fabric. Still, it’s reasonable to see how U-verse could scale to support video on demand with Hulu or Netflix’s full library of titles.

U-verse does a good enough job of pretending to be just like cable that it’s completely uninteresting to me. But if their standards were open and free of DRM, then third parties, like TiVo or Boxee, could build compatible boxes and we’d really have something interesting. I’d drop my cable for that.

(One of my colleagues has U-verse, and he complains that, when his kids watch TV, he can feel the Internet running slower. “Hey you kids, can you turn off the TV? I’m trying to do a big download.” It’s the future.)

TiVo, AppleTV, Boxee, and the future of HD television delivery

I don’t watch as much TV as I once did. Yet, I’m still paying Comcast every month, as they’re the only provider who will sell me HD service compatible with my TiVo-HD. Sadly, Comcast is far from ideal. I’m regularly frustrated at their inability to debug their signal quality problems. (My ABC-HD and PBS-HD signals are right on the edge, in terms of signal quality, so any slight degradation makes those channels unwatchable through the MPEG block errors, which seems to happen on an irregular basis.) Comcast customer service wants me to sit around all day waiting for a tech to come out when the problem has nothing whatsoever to do with my house. When I’ve attempted to report the signal strength measurements I’ve taken and how they vary from channel to channel, I’ve found I might as well be speaking to a brick wall.

Yes, I know I could put an old-school antenna on the roof and feed it into my TiVo. That would do pretty good for the local channels, but then why am I paying Comcast at all? Answer: for the handful of shows that we watch from cable channels. More than one person has asked me why I don’t just download these shows online and cut the cable. You can get Comedy Central programming from their web site. You can get all sorts of things from Hulu.com. All free and legal!

To that end, I’ve hacked my AppleTV with the latest patchstick, a remarkably painless process, and now my AppleTV, running Boxee, based on the open-source xbmc project, can play DVD rips from my file server (including DVD menus), just about anything I download from BitTorrent [see sidebar], and can get at content from a variety of streaming providers, including Comedy Central and Hulu.com, theoretically covering enough ground that I could legitimately consider dropping the Comcast subscription altogether.

In practice, the Internet TV experience was a let-down. I’ve got AT&T’s “Elite” DSL package (“up to 6Mb”, which is pretty close to what I see in practice), so I’ve got enough bandwidth for streaming. What I actually see is not utilizing that bandwidth. Comedy Central is not giving anywhere near 30 frames per second. It’s jumpy, unwatchable. Hulu has moments of greatness (i.e., higher resolution and quality relative to the non-HD channels that Comcast feeds me, but nowhere near broadcast HD) but Hulu also freezes up, sometimes for seconds at a time. If Boxee implemented TiVo-like Season Passes, they could download my shows in advance and yield a real winner of an experience. Or TiVo could implement Hulu support, as they already have batch downloads of Internet video content, mostly from Amazon, albeit with low SD quality and unacceptable self-destructing DRM.

Astute readers will note that I have several other options left to pursue. I could sign up for an unlimited Netflix subscription and have access to their streaming library (either to my TiVo or to my Boxee/AppleTV). I could also “subscribe” to the shows that I care about through Apple’s iTunes Store. (That’s how I’ve been watching Entourage, since I can’t otherwise justify the $20/month that I’d have to pay Comcast for HBO. See also the sidebar.)

Netflix doesn’t have the current TV shows that I want, and the iTunes store is pretty pricey. Those Entourage episodes are $2 each for 30 minutes of SD quality video. iTunes HD content, when available, is pretty much broadcast HD quality. Good stuff. iTunes SD content looks fine on an iPhone, but has a variety of problems on a proper HD set, most notably that any dark colors are pulled down to 100% black, presumably to improve compression. Very distracting. Regardless, friends I have with Netflix streaming seem to swear by it, and the iTunes Store clearly provides a good experience, albeit with high prices.

Clearly, Comcast is in deep trouble. Their product is expensive. Their customer service is lacking. Similar issues can be expected for other cable TV vendors, much less the satellite people. The Internet already has sufficient capacity to deliver the non-broadcast shows that I follow, directly to my TV. All the pieces are in place and they’re starting to work well together. The only missing piece is the business model for the future of online TV delivery. Hulu.com, for example, probably thinks they have to require video streaming so they can force you to watch ads. If you could download it, you could skip the ads and there goes their revenue.

I figure the one true hope in all of this is the ever-declining cost of serving up content. At some distant point in the future, the cost of delivering tens of megabits per second of video, for several hours every day, to all of the homes who might want it, will eventually be small enough to not matter any more. Once we get there, the people who make shows can sell them direct to the consumer, insert occasional and targeted ads, and still come out ahead. It could be a long wait.

[Sidebar: BitTorrent is a brilliant system, from a technical perspective, but it was never designed to provide any anonymity to its users. If you join the torrent for, say, an HBO show, HBO can trivially observe that you (or, at least, your IP address) is there, giving them grounds to go after you in one form or another. From that perspective, you’d have to be insane to download a mainstream movie or TV show from BitTorrent, or you’d have to do something terribly anti-social, like tunnel your entire BitTorrent session through Tor, which Tor was never designed to handle, although there are several designs to improve Tor or anonymize BitTorrent. So then, what shows do I feel safe to download via BitTorrent? So far, only the latest episodes of the BBC’s Top Gear. They air in the U.K. six months to a year ahead of their appearance on BBC America and availability on the U.S. iTunes Store. If there were a way to get these shows in the U.S. simultaneous with their British release, I’d happily pay for the privilege, even the $2 rate at the iTunes Store, but I’m not given that option at any price.]