NetFlix Wins Content Deal with CBS

NetFlix appears to have scored a major win, as they now have a two-year content deal with CBS. And while this is not a stake in Hulu’s coffin, it is an indication that NetFlix is probably going to continue to gain more traction among paying subscribers.

Roku streams NetFlix, which now has programming content from the CBS and ABC networks.

To the average user, this may not mean much. But moving forward, more people are going to discover the Internet button on their new televisions. When they do, they will be hunting for quality content.

That’s not to say that the content on channels like Blip.tv and CNet isn’t good. Many of the offerings that you get free on a Roku can be quite good. As a comic geek, I love watching iFanboy on my Roku.

But sometimes you just want to watch a well-produced network television show, since the conversation around the watercooler tends to be about those shows. NetFlix now has CBS and ABC content, which makes it a bit more competitive with Hulu, which has ABC, NBC, and Fox.
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Apple TV vs Roku – UX + UI For Senior Citizens

Apple TV streaming device.

I have a Roku and I love it. But for my father, the only web-enabled device he needed was the the Apple TV.

Here’s why.

Several years ago, my dad (a senior citizen) wanted a computer. I knew I should get him a Mac, but he became convinced that he needed a PC. A trusted family member  (an IT professional) stressed that a Windows PC was the best option. Plus, it was cheaper than the iMac I was hawking. So we bought an IBM-brand PC (before it became Lenovo), loaded it with RAM, and connected him to the Internet.

For about a year, it was a great little machine. And then it started being a PC. It got fussy and occasionally crashed. It would do odd, PC-type things. I’d come over every couple of weeks to fix it up with new patches, defrag, and perform other minor maintenance. It was a lousy user experience (UX) and user interface (UI).

After a few years of frustrations, my dad broke down and bought a new computer. This time, a shiny new iMac. Two years later, I’ve only had to go to his house to download a few patches and install some games. That’s it. No crashing, no quirky personality traits. Just a computer that he uses to connect to the Internet and play his games. Nice UX and UI.

Apple TV vs. Roku
Flash forward to now. I’ve had my Roku for a month or more. My father is impressed and wants one. I show him how easy it is to use. He nods and says, “I heard that Apple makes one.”

I tell him that in my online research, Roku is getting better reviews. It is more flexible and open and may eventually be one of the online leaders.

And although the Roku has a USB port for pictures and videos, he wants something easier. The Apple TV does something that the others currently do not, which is connect with his iMac.

Yes there’s WiFi and of course he can use NetFlix on both of them, but my father wanted something much more utilitarian. He wants to show photos from his iMac on his television. He wants it to be easy and instant. No USB keys, no file transfers, and no wires. And if you’re already a Mac user, you want Apple’s ease-of-use. It’s all about UX.

Roku views pictures, but only if you tap into streaming Facebook. That Roku Facebook channel is fine for the pictures that you’ve uploaded, but we have too many family photos to upload for that to be practical.

Tapping directly into iPhoto is something that only Apple TV can do right out of the box. There’s no need to run cables or copy files to a USB. Apple’s closed ecosystem makes a lot of sense, particularly when the user is a senior citizen who just wants to use his stuff. Apple’s walled-garden approach offers a level of comfort, consistency, and compatibility that you cannot always achieve buying components.

For me, the flexibility and scalability of the Roku is perfect. It’s exactly what I need, since my primary interest is NetFlix and web-video streaming. I am a digital power user who blogs, tweets, uses TV apps, and reads ebooks.

For my father, the Apple TV is ideal because it becomes part of a series of networked devices that work well for people who want it to work with the minimum of technical experience.

If you’re in the market, I hope this little story-based scenario was helpful to you. Good luck and drop me a line if you have any specific questions about what you should buy.

M2M – The Future of Appliance Connectivity

AT&T Embedded Systems Are Coming

Right now, as of today, things like Internet-enabled refrigerators seem a little silly. Same thing for a ‘Net-connected dryer. Or any other machine that we typically thing of as, well, analog.

But in the periphery of the technology world are people who are developing machine to machine (M2M) hardware and applications. AT&T is one of the companies hoping to be the wireless connection between these devices. So, yeah, your lawnmower and your WiFi card will be tied together.

Looking forward, one day we may look back and wonder how we did without these interconnected M2M-based hardware appliances. It’s sort of the way we are all now deeply connected with our smartphones. (Seriously, if you left the house right now without your phone, you’d be feeling pretty anxious.)

At one time (deep in our past), we used to leave the house without our own personal phone universe. Look back in very, very, very old picture books and magazines, and you will see evidence of public telephones. People put dimes into these phones to use them for a few minutes. The “network” was something completely different back then.

In the near future and in the present, there are pill bottles that are Internet connected. There are Net connections in cars that allow you to Twitter while you drive. Read the CullmannDesign Blog for other ways that embedded systems are integrating into our lives.

As a technology marketer, I immediately dream about the ways that I can share brand messages on these new channels. It’s all about the content message. The channel is just a way of getting in front of people in unique and relevant ways. M2M will be another way that people get information that matters to them. Good marketers will figure out ways to send the right message to the right person, hopefully at the right time.

Last year, we saw the first skirmishes in the battle for the sofa. Now the M2M technology wars are just starting to get interesting and my garage-door opener has a Facebook page. How ya “like” that?

May the best Internet-connected blender win!

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Aperture from App Store

It's easy to download full applications like Aperture from the Apple App Store.

This weekend, I broke down and bought a copy of Apple’s Aperture software. As a Mac user, I am typically very happy with the core software that comes with iLife, but I just needed something more powerful. And the Apple App Store has been daring me to purchase something from it.

As a published photographer with three photography books in Amazon and Barnes & Nobles, I figured that I needed something slightly more versatile for organizing images. iPhoto is okay, but it’s just not up for the task of organizing a huge library of pictures.

I’d dabbled with Adobe Bridge, which is part of the Adobe Creative Suite, but found it to be a bit slow and clunky. I’ve also tried out the Extensis Portfolio package, which was really quite good for $199. It allowed a lot of flexibility in storage and organizing. But as I moved from my old Mac G5 to my new iMac, I wanted something that would be a little more universal. That is, I’d never met another person who used Extensis Portfolio and I was concerned that, if I had a problem, I would have limited support options.

If I get a new computer, I don’t want to do what I am doing now, which is trying to upgrade multiple files and software packages.

Apple's App Store sells Mac software

Anyway, after doing entirely too much research, I downloaded Apple’s Aperture. In the stores, it costs $199. In the Apple App Store, it’s only $80. That’s the full version, not the upgrade.

The App Store was a pretty smooth and intuitive process. It just billed the purchase to my iTunes account and installed the Aperture application on my computer. I have no idea what will happen if I get a new computer, but for now, I feel pretty good about downloading software and not getting discs and a serial number.

Installing and using Aperture is a standard Apple experience. Everything works, and you feel good about your purchase. No wonder iPhones and iPads are flying off the shelves. People like a good user experience and simplicity goes a long way. Usability is important for end users, even power users and professionals.

Now comes the task of organizing and tagging 70,000 photos.

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Free Kindle? A Matter of Time

Free Kindle OfferWow, that was fast. Just a few short years ago, the Amazon Kindle ereader was a red-hot gadget that claimed a premium price. At launch in 2007, the Kindle was priced at $399. And, get this, the original Kindle sold out within just 5.5 hours. (Don’t worry, they made more.)

Soon after, the Kindle 2 released. Somehow, through the magic of Moore’s Law, the price dropped to $299. Still not cheap, but dramatically less expensive than the original. As of this writing, you can get a brand new Kindle for just $139.

But wait, there’s more. I’ll be a panelist at the upcoming DTC National Conference in Boston. And I noticed that there’s a crazy promo. Register for the DTC event, and they give you the conference materials on a Kindle. And you get to keep the Kindle.

From $399 to free.

Amazon’s sales of ebooks are skyrocketing. According to Amazon, ebooks already outsell paperback books. No surprise there. So it makes sense to keep dropping the price on the Kindle. Heck, Amazon can give the ereader away for free and (probably) still profit on the ebook sales.

How long before this pushes down the prices of competing ereaders? Something tells me that the Barnes & Noble Nook will probably be considering a price cut. The Apple iPad? Probably not just yet.

Last year, I predicted “5 Reasons You’ll Be Using an EReader in 2 Years.” Um, I’d like to revise that now to “1.5 years.”

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NetFlix Ideas – Improving a Streaming Experience

NetFlix LogoYou have to be impressed with NetFlix. Seriously. It’s a terrific service, particularly the instant streaming on the Roku XDS. Excellent picture quality, crisp sound, and a solid catalogue of ever-changing content. At CES, several companies announced that they would include a dedicated NetFlix button on their remote controls. This is a company that is getting it right.

That said, here are a few of the features I would like to see NetFlix introduce:

More flexible parental controls. Right now, NetFlix has some basic parental control settings. You can set it so that videos under a certain rating — like PG — are unavailable to your NetFlix enabled devices. But that’s sort of a problem, since it blocks both you and your kids. So after the kids go to bed, forget streaming Rated PG-13 and R movies through your Roku. It’s locked. Even the Wii has a setting where you can block certain games. Allow parents to set profiles so that you can limit access based on user profiles.

Better control of the Instant Queue. This ties back to the parental controls. If you watch a regular R-rated movie, your kids can just click the “resume” button and pick up where you left off. And even if they don’t, they may think that a movie like “The Human Centipede” is a nature flick from the Discovery Channel. (It’s not.) It would be nice to be able to block kids from even seeing certain movie boxes, while allowing you to surf what you want with a pass code.

Spoiler alerts. It’s interesting to skim reviews when deciding if you want to add something to your Instant Queue. Too many people include critical spoilers in their write ups. It would be nice to give the authors (and the community) a little button that notes that the review includes spoilers. Heck, maybe you can even allow people to highlight the spoiler section, so that it just comes up with the section blocked out. That would allow reviewers to self-censor sections without deleting their entire reviews. And then, after the movie, you could decide if you wanted to go back and read those sections. There are actually some interesting discussions in there that you can read after you’ve seen the movie.

Social sharing. It’s really surprising that they haven’t incorporated any social features into the NetFlix site. I mean, most people want to know what their friends think of a particular movie. If our taste matches their tastes, we may be more likely to trust their movie recommendations. Even the Apple iTunes store has a service like Apple’s Ping. I want to find my friends and share reviews and recommendations with them. They already have a sizable following on Facebook and on Twitter.

Marketing Perspecitive

Not only are these features well within reach of NetFlix, they would derive clear benefits from exploring them. Now, I put on my marketer’s hat and offer a few suggestions.

First off, they already crowdsourced their recommendations engine. This famous NetFlix contest raised awareness…and created a fantastic resource for their service. People suddenly became interested in NetFlix and for good reason. NetFlix showed that they cared about their core service and did something creative to improve it. They could steal a page from their own book and crowd source the development of certain features. If done properly, they could continue to innovate, provide improved service, and incentivize and reward innovation.

Second, they could add parent-friendly features and earn crucial support from DVD-exhausted parents. Ever try to organize a massive collection of Disney and Pixar DVDs only to discover that some of them are either lost or scratched? Heck, you’d have me sold just by telling me that the movies start instantly. And that my kids won’t get bombarded by trailers and commercials. Rolling out parent-friendly features — and promoting it aggressively where parents go for information — would get people to explore the affordable streaming-only option. If you have the right content (and at this point they do), parents would be comfortable about streaming content into their homes.

Third, they could mobilize their existing fan base using social media. Allow people to interact with their peers, form groups, and personalize their NetFlix experience. It doesn’t have to be as complicated as the Facebook privacy settings, but a little bit of customization and socialization would be welcome to some folks. Plus, they could give existing NetFlix fans ways of sharing their enthusiasm with people who don’t subscribe. Yet.

NetFlix is an important service that is helping to pave the way to a world media is paid for by consumers and, back catalogues are still valuable, and distribution isn’t limited to retail stores. Between services like NetFlix, Hulu, Apple TV, Roku, Boxee and others, the streaming world is just starting to get truly interesting.

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Roku XDS Week 1

Roku LogoWe’re a week into it with the Roku XDS. Let’s take a moment and review a few of my initial impressions of bringing Internet video into my living room.

NetFlix experience is quite good, but I find myself playing with my Instant Queue almost as much as I watch actual movies. The NetFlix recommendation engine is amazing, and it exposed me to several movies and documentaries that were right on target. Streaming NetFlix through the Roku is a pleasure.

Hulu Plus is definitely attractive, since I am a big fan of well-produced television shows. Something about a serialized story appeals to me in both comics and TV. However, adding another $7.99 monthly subscription on top of the NetFlix sub is going to get expensive fast.  At this point, NetFlix seems to have an adequate collection of TV shows, so I’ll stick with that for a while.

Adding custom channels is pretty easy, so I have updated the Roku XDS with Blip.tv and Revision3. Here the experience is rather uneven. The connection and content are fine, but some of the programming is barely a step above cable access. It’s too bad because I like the idea of watching long-tail TV shows.

That said, I am happy to watch iFanboy on Revision3 much more than I do on my laptop. Big improvement.

NetFlix LogoIt’s worth noting that this whole Roku and NetFlix upgrade traces back to the local movie theater raising prices last year. The ticket price of a first-run movie increased one week from $9 to $11. Just to be clear, I typically went to the movies on a Tuesday and the price increase was on regular 2D films. I can understand the price increase on 3D movies because there are special projectors, glasses, and good stuff like that.

It’s not like I couldn’t afford the $2, but it was kind of annoying that they skipped over $10 and went right to $11. Product pricing and perceived value is certainly a psychological game in every industry. In this case, the price jump bummed me out, and I was in the habit of seeing a new movie just about every week.

But I still need my movie fix…and good luck trying to find a local video rental store. Okay, we have a RedBox near us, but for whatever reason, I just never remember that when I am in movie mode.

So NetFlix on the Roku has filled the void left by regular movie theaters. It’s not quite the same, but the combined depth and variety of their library of movies, TV shows, and other content is truly impressive.

I’m looking forward to exploring more channels on the Roku, just to see what’s available. There are a few premium paid channels, and if the content is good and the price is right, I may give them a try.

Well, one week in and I am pretty happy with the Roku. I haven’t really explored it fully, nor have I tried plugging anything into the USB slot. Check back again for more Roku, NetFlix and other streaming reports.

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Roku XDS – Day 1

Today is Day 1 with the new Roku XDS. Right after the CES 2011 announcements, I surveyed the new technology and determined that the Roku was the right technology for me. Well, for now, at least.

For those not familiar, the Roku is one of many devices that streams Internet video to your television. NetFlix and Hulu are among the best-known streaming sources, but there are others out there. The actual Roku is just a small box that connects your television to the Internet with a pretty menu. If you want to learn more, read the New York Times series on The Sofa Wars. I wrote a piece called Web Meets Living Room, if you want to check that out too.

Two important points influenced my gadget buying decision:

  1. First, the device had to work on an analog television. Most devices, including the Boxee and the Apple TV were strictly for televisions with HDMI connections. Roku offers both HDMI and RCA connections, and I needed RCA.
  2. Second, it had to be easy. Really easy. Reading reviews suggested that Boxee was a little more challenging than Roku because it offers more options. That’s fine for me, but the rest of the family wants easy.

I bought the Roku XDS, which is the top of the line model for $99.

So, setup was easy. You plug it in, it boots up, looks for a connection, and you’re ready to go. You do have to register for a Roku.com account and give them a credit card, but there is no Roku subscription fee. The credit card is for making purchases, I suppose.

Connecting NetFlix was also really simple. I’ve already linked NetFlix to the Wii, the iPad, the iPod Touch, and obviously my computer (iMac). Adding it to Roku was just as easy and within minutes, we were watching movies in our Instant Queue. Simple.

There was a weird problem with a connection error. NetFlix offered a live chat option and Steve, the customer service guy, was able to help me fix it within about 15 minutes. He instructed me to hold the reset button on the bottom of the box for 60 seconds and then let the system reboot. That worked, and I haven’t had a problem yet.

So far, I have hooked up a bunch of widgets that help you stream content. So far I’ve added an application that allows me to see photos from my Facebook account, something that gives me the local weather, and a really nice app that pulls news from different television channels.

Initial impressions:

  • Video quality is better than expected. Nice clear picture and sound with no problems syncing.
  • Control panel on Roku.com website is too basic. NetFlix is a better model because you can add and remove content from your computer or your television and it all works together. I’d like to see my apps and other resources through my web login, so that if I had to, I could add and remove features remotely.
  • So far, I haven’t found a way to search for video content beyond the offered channels. There’s a site called Clicker.com that has an amazing service, but I haven’t really figured out how to get it to work on the Roku. I read that you can make it work through NetFlix, but I really think it would be nice to have an actual widget or app of Clicker.com. There appear to be other widgets that provide similar resources, so I will be checking those out for sure.

We’ve had the Internet in my living room for a long time now, streamed through my PowerBook. But now it’s up on the TV screen, which is a natural and comfortable way to consume video content. A nice sofa beats an office chair any day.

At one time, the most advanced technology we had in our entire house was the television. But then the computer came, and the television felt like a relic of the past. In a reversal of fortune for the humble television, video streaming devices like the Roku — and some really impressive new TVs — are pulling people back into the family room.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to hop off the computer and go watch television. For a change.

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Don’t Believe Everything You Read

There’s power in the media. Still, today, we’re still influenced by things we read or see or otherwise receive from the media.

Part of it is presentation and packaging. If something looks professional, we mentally assign a level of credibility. Conversely, if it looks cheap or poorly produced, it is easier to dismiss.

Tonight, a friend and colleague forwarded along a link to an article he though I’d find interesting, since it was about the industry in which I work. He was right; the article was extremely compelling. Despite it being quite long, I read it immediately and entirely.

I mean, how could I stop? The article was complete and utter trash. Biased, reporting that showed the writer’s contempt for the fair and balanced journalism. But it looked good and appeared on a website that also appeared to publish other credible articles.

If I didn’t know something about the topic (i.e., I work in the industry), I’d read the article and think, “wow, look at these corrupt bastards who beat the system, someone should go get them!” That’s probably what many people thought when they read the article.

It’s not like yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theater, but it is dangerous in a different way. People who read it may assume that the writer was reporting honestly and accurately. Checking facts and getting both sides of the story. Checks and balances.

That’s not what happened, and fortunately there were a fair amount of posts that called out that writer on his biased article. Good for them. No censorship was required here, because the community recognized the writer’s unfair bias and challenged his slanted reporting.

In the days of old media, there was usually an editorial staff, which included reviewers who checked facts. They didn’t always get it right, but at least there were multiple sets of eyes reviewing copy before it went to the printer. Sure there were always articles that leaned to the left or to the right, but good editors often forced reporters to tell both sides of the story. To let the readers make up their own minds. And very biased articles usually found a home on the OpEd page, where strong opinions were welcome, facts be damned.

But now the world is changing, sometimes even for the better. Journalism and reporting has certainly changed, both for better and for worse. Often articles (including this blog post) go from they keyboard to the web without anyone but the writer reviewing it before it goes live. Nobody is required to fact check anymore.

And now, as with before, don’t believe everything you read out there.

Write Less, Say More

As most copywriters will agree, it’s actually more difficult to write less than to write more. It’s easy to blabber on until you get around to making your point. That’s fairly easy.

Write tight. Now that’s hard.

This is especially true online. People aren’t necessarily looking to “read” your magical prose. They are looking to get to their destination content. They want you to help them get there with the least amount of clutter. Words — when abused — can be clutter.

Google is a company that is always trying to gain an extra edge in efficiency. Their famously austere homepage shows that they want nothing to stand in the way of your search.

Google gave Gmail a makeover. For those of you who are unfamiliar with their old homepage, they provided a side-by-side comparison. According to Google, they cut some 250 words from their copy. They are literally saying more by saying less. Or at least using fewer words.

It’s important to recognize when your reader actually wants more detail, particularly when they are trying to determine if your product or service is what they want. At that point, you need to give them the information they need to make a decision about your product or service.

Check out your own website. Could your copy go for a little nip/tuck? Is your otherwise smart, valuable service drowning in a sea of prose? If so, sharpen your pencils and start editing.

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