The Web is the Only Set-Top Box That Matters

Blockbuster is building a set-top, burped the web. I looked around my apartment at my three media consumption stations — or would have had I not been flying on an airplane — and considered where Blockbuster’s box might go.

My laptop, a Mac, is full of a few video podcasts which I watch primarily on my phone. (Lala, call me!) I’ll download the occasional torrent, although that is done primarily on my…

Desktop machine, a Windows Vista PC hooked up to a television-sized LCD monitor. I’ll bring down television torrents from time to time, but as I have money to spend again (last year was a bear), I’ve been renting DVDs from Netflix. I watch those occasionally on my PS3, attached to the same display, instead of the PC. That’s to pretend that I have a use for the PS3 besides a Blu-ray player.

In the living room is a projector connected to a DVR, or as it is increasingly known, “The American Idol Experience Box.” If I wanted, I believe Time Warner has some on-demand options, but since I’m really only paying my cable bill as a way to assuage, in part, any ethical burden I feel for torrents I download, I’ve never used tried to use on-demand.

What I use many times a week is Netflix’s web-based streaming service, available free at most subscription levels. And, to my surprise, Hulu. I pop open a browser, fire up an episode of 30 Rock or Arrested Development and watch an episode or two while I run on the elliptical. Or that’s what I did at first. Now I find myself looking through the Netflix streaming listing for movies. Not just movies I’ve seen a million times, like Ghostbusters, but movies I keep putting at the back of my DVD queue because I’m just not quite sure I actually want to watch them. (Half of my queue is filled with movies I’m fairly sure I just have on there to impress myself. Oh, you’re so well-rounded and worldly! But no one will mind if you just move Enchanted up to the top.*)

I never want to touch a piece of proprietary hardware to access content again. There’s no need! We’ll be able to stream HD content soon enough; in the interim, even these browser-based solutions could pre-fetch and cache it. The only reason companies like Blockbuster and Vudu want dedicated hardware is because it locks you into their service. They’re recreating the Blu-ray/HD DVD format war for streaming digital media. How silly is that?

In Appledom, iTunes is the future, not AppleTV. AppleTV and other PC-based media centers only exist because no television manufacturer has figured out how to make a passable, low-priced solution to add a capable web browser to their TVs.

It would be simple and inexpensive to add a computer small enough to run a web browser to most televisions. (Even accounting for the relatively high performance cost of streaming video.) It might not even need a traditional hard drive, since data would only need to be cached, not stored. And while a custom interface to the web sites would be nice, it’s not essential. (And could be done by the streaming media sites themselves by catching the browser type ID and passing back a custom CSS, like many sites now do for iPhone Safari.) A cursor and an on-screen keyboard would be enough to log-in to web pages, if slowly.

Or add a web browser to the game consoles. It doesn’t matter. Just get a browser on these displays, connect them to the plain ol’ web, and let them start showing content.

Of course there is one snag: DRM. And it’s not even the standard DRM problem — you know, how it’s a complete waste of culture’s time — but that the DRM powering Netflix is Windows-based. But there’s a fix for even that (besides adding the same DRM to Linux or other OSes and browsers): just use a different DRM. Hulu works just fine on my Mac. I don’t know how or if they’re trying to lock down the stream through Flash, but it seems to be working cross-platform without issue.

Unlike an ISP-level tax to preemptively pay for all media consumption as some have proposed, the browser-based system still empowers me as a consumer to make decisions within the framework of the market. If I like what I’m getting, I pay. If I don’t, I stop paying. And there’s no dead box under my television, waiting to be ground into splinters and smelted for heavy metals. There’s just bored me looking wistfully at a login form, secure that all that entertainment is ready to be beamed to me again to any browser on any screen in the world.

* Loved it.

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9 Responses to The Web is the Only Set-Top Box That Matters

  1. mdhatter says:

    ooh, a WiiPlayer, v. nice.

  2. mdhatter says:

    Some companies just flail all the way into the ground.

    I wonder how much they’ll charge you if you return their box late after deciding it sucks?

  3. Gilbert Wham says:

    The other snag being, that if every Joe Sixpack with a TV is merrily streaming media, the whole fucking network will fizzle and die. Look at the foofaraw that is developing over iPlayer already.

    Plus, I can guarantee, if they build it, malware will come. OK, OK, I know it doesn’t have to be that way, but what are the bets?

  4. hanswurst0815 says:

    Love the longer-form post, too, but the headline said it all. You’re totally right.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Things are not as bad as you think they are :-) A European TV manufacturer actually *did* have a TV set with built-in webbrowser, it was sold from 1997 to 2002 or sth., and I do still have one of those at home. Unfortunately, there is one reason that renders that technology unsusable, or at least did in the past, and which caused only very few of the devices being sold: size of the screen in relation to distance to the viewer. Try to read a “normal” website like boingboing, in a fullsize browser with a screen resolution of 800×600 (which is the maximum my TV can display) on a 70cm screen when sitting a typical 3-4 meters away and you know what I mean. You can simulate it by trying to surf the web on your normal 19″ monitor from 2 meters away instead of the normal half meter.
    For streamed video content things are different of course, and settop-box and TV manufacturers are at it again. Expect products with capable webbrowsers in 2-3 years.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Speaking of web browsers on games consoles:

    The wii has a version of opera. That version works with the BBC iPlayer streaming service. Your future is now (well, a little bit of it, and only in the UK, but still).

  7. Anonymous says:

    i use the wii’s browser to watch youtube and friends, it’s great!

  8. gadfly says:

    love the longer-form post. Not that I blame you for pushing your other blogs but if I wanted to see the stuff on MM I’d go there, or at least set up a feed that would show me just about everything your MM posts tell me. I come here for those great moments when you actually *write* something (or tape it like the Heineken keg-fridge-thing review – excellent!).

    Anyway to address what you actually say here a little bit, I think you’re mostly spot-on. We’re in a very messy transitional period here, with one complex and intensive set of technologies (collected and oversimplified as “the Internet”) simultaneously disrupting many older technology-based industries at once (film, TV, music, newspapers, the list goes on). Someday when the dust has finally settled, it’ll probably all just get piped directly to our brain, but until then we’re probably doomed to these content-delivery wars.

  9. davy_k says:

    Blockbuster is as aware as anyone that consumers don’t go for more boxes on the entertainment stack, except for a few early adopters. A box isn’t the way to get to digital content onto your TV, and I’m fairly certain the rumor is false or inaccurate.

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