August 20, 2018

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.)

Comments

  1. What evidence do you have for the assertion that “the same companies who run the wired phone networks” run the mobile phone networks?

    The largest mobile phone networks that I am aware of (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mobile_network_operators) such as Vodafone and China Mobile do not compete in fixed line services, and others such as O2 have only recently been bought by general telecommunications companies (Telefonica in the case of O2).

    • In the U.S., the two largest cellular phone companies are AT&T and Verizon. Guess who the two largest landline companies are?

  2. The point you make about open standards, and then later DRM, are the pertinent ones I believe. From a users perspective, there seems little difference between accessing Hulu content via a browser like Firefox and an interface like Boxee. I’m assuming the content owners however think there is material difference, around ads and interactivity I imagine. But unless they go the DRM route, a la Netflix with Silverlight, it seems highly unlikely that Hulu will be able to block access to what are essentially unencrypted streams for long.

  3. You miss the point that the bit of coax is currently delivering dozens of NTSC channels and they all use bandwidth, but it is unidirectional, and much wider than that use for data. It would be something like 10Gb ethernet, and there are other “channels” which are still not that much different than the cable modem except they are called on-demand and hi-def and need a different version to move the bits, and some other kind of server is at the other end and it may or may not speak TCP/IP.

    Turn the “on demand” server into a huge cache, and just make the entire coax bandwidth all TCP/IP/ethernet and we would be there tomorrow. For that matter, they could encode the NTSC stuff onto video web pages.

    • The cable, from cable TV, can potentially serve up a whole lot of bandwidth. They could certainly architect their cable as an IP firehose, although they would need to more finely segment the cable, run fiber (as in Verizon Fios), or otherwise upgrade their systems to do it.

      I’d bet against the content delivery system being sufficiently open that third parties could implement “IP cable boxes” without the cable company’s approval. The irony, of course, is that by moving cable to something more like a star-shaped architecture, they could completely eliminate any need for CableCards or otherwise worry about people “stealing” premium channels without paying for them. The cable running into your house would only have your content that you paid for and were requesting at that particular time.

      Hmm… that’s actually pretty cool. Cable (or fiber or vanilla DSL lines) could lead us closer to a world where the client side can be completely open and free of DRM, as all of the content restriction action would be happening at the neighborhood DSLAM box. That’s a relatively attractive vision of where we could ultimately go. (But, would the content providers go for it?)

      • Cable companies, and their content-owner masters, will never allow an open standard that enables user-controlled edge devices. It’s true that by sending content as a data stream just to the particular requesting subscriber they would do away with the theft of service issue, but that’s not their big fear these days. What concerns them more is the ability to control how that content is used once it is delivered.

        The content providers want to assure that we don’t undermine their advertising revenue. A streaming-only model lets them inject ads. If we can download, we can skip the ads on playback, or edit them out altogether. If we can archive, we can view the content any number of times while the provider takes ad revenue for only a single download.

        It’s these ad-revenue issues which keep us in tethered provider-controlled services. Until we address those issues, the content providers will continue to insist on total control over the functionality of the end devices.

        • All of the nowaday ads are short-lived (Christmas sale, New phone from Apple, Vote for Obama, Yet another company selling penis enlargement cream which will disappear in six months as soon as lawsuits appear, and so on). Keeping them in archives doesn’t make any sense from any perspective, and content provides do not care about it.

  4. The shareholders of these content companies need to be informed that they are slamming the door in the face of some of their audience for *no reason*. Boxee users watched the commercials.

  5. I don’t understand what are the advantages of PlayOn for the PS3. On the PS3 I can watch Hulu and Youtube via the console browser. Maybe the only advantage is to be able to stream Netflix?

  6. hegemonicon says:

    How would you counter the assertion made by Mark Cuban, that internet TV is a pie in the sky dream because of how internet video is delivered.

    See : http://blogmaverick.com/2009/01/27/the-great-internet-video-lie/

    I’m not technically inclined enough to know whether he’s right or not, but he seems to make a good point.

    • According to Cuban, commercial CDN providers have limits to their scalability. I cite AT&T’s U-verse as a counter-example. They use CDN-like technology to support a business model that’s basically a clone of cable TV, implemented over standard DSL technology.

      At the end of the day, if AT&T wanted to do the engineering, they could support Internet delivery of content at the scales where Cuban criticizes existing CDN providers like Akamai. Similarly, anybody else who controls the “final mile” to your house could do it. Akamai and other CDNs try to have their own computers strategically scattered around the net such that they’re always close to the end-user. Could they support massive scale today? Apparently not. Could they do it tomorrow if somebody came up with the money to expand their infrastructure? Absolutely. Who’s planning to invest that money?

      • Unless I’m mistaken, the only reason U-verse is possible now is because it predominately streams live TV using multicast delivery. The back-end isn’t handling any more data than a cable TV provider does- in fact, it must be less, since it’s only sending out channels that people are actually watching. But, the holy grail of Internet TV is the delivery of video entirely on-demand, which requires independent video streams. I think that makes it an entirely different beast. U-verse may demonstrate some of the necessary prerequisites for Internet TV, but probably nothing that we weren’t pretty sure was going to be perfectly achievable in the near term. As I think we all understand, the challenge of Internet TV is in scalability, and based on what I know about how Uverse works (which admittedly is pretty limited) it doesn’t seem like they are demonstrating anything significantly beyond what cable companies have been doing for a while now. Certainly, I agree it’s just a matter of time before we’re all using Internet TV. I’m just not sure how far off that is.

        • At the very least, U-verse demonstrates that you can do IP multicast (or something along those lines) at a significant scale.

          At that point, you can imagine a wide variety of video-on-demand extensions to U-verse. You could put servers that record content for later playback (like a TiVo) throughout the U-verse fabric, recording data as it goes by (or, recording separate channels that deliver content intended explicitly for video-on-demand). How many servers do you need? How close to the home do you put them? That depends on what your target capacity is and whether you’re willing to put up with delayed delivery to a DVR versus real-time streaming.

  7. Firstly, Hulu have obfuscated things further, so the XBMC plugin currently doesn’t work. I believe it’s being worked on, though, and the current obfuscation will be broken in a matter of days and it’ll be back to going. The key difference with the XBMC version is: It doesn’t get the ads. That’s right: Ad free streaming of Hulu content: Why? Because it’s accessing the video directly, and the ads are added later.

    Boxee’s plugin works differently. It is actually just playing the same flash player that you’re using in Firefox. This will still work. All Boxee will do is disable it. Whether or not users will be able to still get it to go depends. I suspect building Boxee from the sources is tricky. Pity they didn’t open source everything in the flash (and silverlight) playing chain. All they’re doing is loading the firefox plugins, after all. The only reason they didn’t is so that they could get the content providers on side. This clearly didn’t work, so they should release the sources. Once it’s open, the content providers have no choice.

  8. Fred Wilson, at Union Square Ventures, is an investor in Boxee and has a good post
    on why HuLu should embrace Boxee http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2009/02/the-valentines-day-breakup.html

  9. One of the reasons Boxee may well have more problems like this is that it supports BitTorrent. By doing P2P, it acts as a server on the customer’s Internet connection 24×7, which is likely not only to slow the connection but to expose the user to penalty charges for exceeding caps. And it violates ISPs’ terms of service as well. (That’s not to mention the fact that BitTorrent is mostly used for illegal downloading. The Boxee is said only to point to “legal” trackers, but can easily be pointed at illegal ones.) Finally, most users of the Boxee are completely naive about the fact that their Internet connections are being co-opted to serve up content — a serious disclosure issue. If it didn’t do P2P, the Boxee might do a lot better.

  10. Phillip McKann says:

    Many bandwidth providers are piloting download caps, and I’m sure the long-term goal is to protect their profits. I believe that is consistent with your opinion. I can forsee a time in the future where flat rate pricing is squashed and again we are forced to pay tiered or metered prices. Maybe your cable Internet provider will offer Tier 2, with uncapped access to Hulu, and for Tier3 you get uncapped access to YouTube, etc.

    Come on, President Obama, save us from these monopolizing thieves.