The New TV Stack: How to Watch Internet TV on your TV Set

I’ve spent the weekend preparing a presentation for SetJam’s prospective investors.  One thing I’ve had to define was where SetJam fits into the “New TV Stack”, that is, the collection of technologies, products, and services that enable the New TV experience.  Since everyone I talk to seems a little confused about how all the various components fit together, I thought I’d blog this out.

Since this can get a little complicated fast, I’ve created a simple diagram I can reference:

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The Remote Interface

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The first component of the New TV Stack is the “Remote Interface”.  It’s the thing you actually hold in your hands to control your TV experience.  The first set of Remote Interfaces belong to the dedicated “TV Boxes”–those companies like Boxee, Roku, and Tivo that make a box specifically designed to bring online-TV to your home over your existing broadband connection.  Each of these TV Boxes has their own proprietary remote.

Roku’s is the simplest:

roku-player-review

Tivo’s is the most like a traditional remote:

tivo_remote

And Boxee has added a (much needed) keyboard to theirs:

D-Link-Remote-Keyboard-Layout-ZACH-2-1024x660

The next Remote Interface is Apple’s.  They’ve been pushing the iPhone (or iPod) “Remote” app as the default remote for their TV experience.  It’s tightly integrated into Front Row, which we’ll discuss more when we get to software.

The TV manufacturers who have built in Wi-Fi provide a standard remote; whereas, the “Open” or Internet platform uses a keyboard with a built in mouse or track pad.  My favorite (and what I use) is the Di Novo Mini (works for Macs and PCs):

dinovo-mini

I’ve also included the “Tablet” with a question mark.  This is part prediction and part wish, but I believe a tablet is the BEST remote interface for the TV.  If the tablet would mirror EXACTLY what’s on your TV screen, and enable you to manipulate those elements locally (while turning into a full keyboard with a simple touch), I believe it could finally be the the Remote Interface that finally makes the Internet fully usable on the TV.

Hardware

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The next component of the New TV Stack is the hardware that enables you to connect your broadband Internet connection to your TV.  Not surprisingly, the dedicated “TV Boxes” each have their own box.  Tivo’s is the most versatile, as it acts as a DVR as well as an Internet connected device.  Roku’s looks like a traditional set-top box, and the Boxee Box looks like a half submerged cube (arty, but of dubious practical value):

Boxee-box

Apple has the Apple TV.  The Apple TV is essentially a cheap mac that’s restricted to the “Front Row” interface, which I’ll discuss more when I get to software.

Most of the Internet-enabled TVs have built-in Wi-Fi.  This seems like a good idea at first, but hardware gets out of date MUCH faster than screens, so I’d hate to have to upgrade my TV every 2 years!

The Open or Internet platform just uses a regular old PC or Mac that hooks to your TV through VGA or DVI to HDMI.  There are a number of PCs designed to fit normally in the living room (I use a Mac Mini), and they have the obvious advantage of being upgradable, just like computers have always been.

Software

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The software that controls your New TV experience is perhaps the most important piece of the stack in my opinion, and really separates the platforms.  Each of the dedicated TV Boxes has their own proprietary software.  Boxee’s is the most open and easiest to develop for, followed by Roku, and then Tivo.

I’m not a huge fan of any of them for two reasons.  First, unlike the web browser (my development platform of choice), they control too much of the UI experience.  It’s very hard to develop any kind of new interface because all the key functions are controlled by their software.  Second, I don’t want to have to build three versions of my app.  The Internet has solved this problem basically, and I don’t like it being reintroduced just because I’m moving to a larger screen.

Apple’s Front-Row is a pretty nice interface, but it suffers critically because they control what apps are on it.  I can’t see a closed platform ever winning in this space:

whatis_selection20091014

The TV manufacturers generally use Yahoo’s “Connected TV” platform.  Technically it is open to application development, but we’ve only heard nightmares about how hard it is.  They did release a new version of the platform at CES, so it might be easier now.  Regardless, it is yet another platform we would have to develop for.

The Open platform of course just uses a web browser or the OS of the PC you choose (Windows or Mac).  This has the obvious advantage of bringing the power of all your favorite Internet or desktop apps to your TV immediately.  Some people ding it because these apps aren’t designed specifically for the “lean back” experience, but as I said earlier, I really believe this problem will be solved at the Remote Interface level–maybe with the new Mac Tablet!

Discovery

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The dedicated TV Boxes each have their own discovery software.  They are in general, pretty poor in my experience–particularly since they are limited to the content that has been developed for their platform.  Some independent app makers have ported their discovery apps to these platforms, but they have to adhere to the TV Boxes often rigid UI and so end-up feeling a bit like a Franken-app.

Apple’s Front-Row is beautiful (with heavy use of “cover-flow”), but it’s also ill-suited for the massive amount of content available over the Internet.  Of course, since you can’t access that content on your Apple TV, I guess you don’t really need to worry about it!

The discovery tools for Wi-Fi enabled TVs, as you can only imagine, are horrific.  These are the geniuses who’ve made it take 15 clicks to change the aspect ratio on your TV for years, so you can only imagine the tortures they’ve invented to enable you to discover their limited online offerings.

Obviously, I’m HUGELY biased toward the Open platform when it comes to discovery, but let’s face it, the Internet has been designed to navigate nearly limitless content for about a decade now.  Surprisingly, Google (or YouTube) aren’t the best sites for discovery (except for short-form, user-generated content).  SetJam and our competitor Clicker both deliver significantly better experiences for premium content (with SetJam focused exclusively on premium content).

As I’ve detailed elsewhere, SetJam focuses on our “Time-to-Watch” metric, which measures how quickly we get you to your show.  Because of this, it feels much more like a light tool (think Google) designed specifically for TV.  Clicker is really building an entertainment portal, so when you search there, you are much more likely to stay there (think Yahoo!).

Upcoming SetJam TV Listing Page

(Upcoming SetJam TV listing page shown above)

Content

Picture 10Content is of course the end of the New TV Stack, and what we really care about.  All of the platforms are limited by what the content providers will make available online, but that content-base is continually widening (about 90% of current TV shows are available and most movies come out about the same time as the DVD is released).

Some are available for Free with commercials, but the vast majority (about 80%) are only available to purchase (on Amazon or iTunes) or through a subscription (Netflix, Comcast, or Epix).  The subscription model is gaining the most momentum, and at SetJam, we’ll be integrating 7 new subscription services this spring alone.

The dedicated TV Boxes with proprietary software are all limited to the degree that they’ve been able to integrate online content sources (Boxee has the widest content, since its platform is the easiest to build on).  Apple TV is the most restricted (because of all the platforms, they are the only ones who sell content and therefore have interests to protect).  The Wi-Fi enabled TVs are limited by their difficult development environments, big company reaction times, and poor discovery software.

The good old Internet, of course has the widest range of content available.  The biggest problem is that there is so much to watch, discovery become a problem.  The good news is that the Internet is the most open of all the platforms, so the development of discovery apps is moving quickly.  We here at SetJam, along with dozens of other companies, will continue to work at this problem in the coming years.

Conclusion

Which New TV Stack will eventually win is an open question right now.  Likely there will be many winners, as different people will gravitate to different experiences.  Those who want an old-fashioned remote experience will probably buy one of the dedicated TV Boxes, an Apple TV, or take advantage of the new capabilities of their existing Set-top boxes.  Those people who don’t want to buy any hardware will probably use whatever their TV gives them.  Those who are slightly more technical and want the broadest content, will likely hookup a PC to their TVs.

One thing though is for sure–TV will never be the same, and from what I’ve seen to date, consumers will have more choices and more power over their TV experience. That’s something we can all appreciate!