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Media Players: Bridging the Digital Divide

16 Jul, 2010 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Connected devices, including media players, Blu-ray Disc players and video game consoles, linking the Internet to the television are an ever-growing part of the evolution of entertainment distribution into the home.

With connected HDTVs featuring apps capable of delivering movies and related content from the Web, media players have upped the ante, offering increased content selections and compatibility with home networks.

Roku, Western Digital and Seagate spearhead a line of plug-and-play set-tops (with remotes and wireless connectivity) showcasing channels devoted to premium content (requiring a separate subscription or transaction) such as Netflix streaming, Amazon Video on Demand, YouTube videos, mixed-martial arts (UFC), pro basketball (NBA Game Time) and major league baseball (MLB.tv), among other selections.

The unobtrusive gadgets — dwarfed in size by a typical cable set-top-box, DVD/Blu-ray player or digital video recorder (DVR) — have no Internet browsing functionality or hard drive capacity but adroitly play back music files and feature access to news, weather, finance, sports, photo libraries and radio stations, among other media. They represent a relatively inexpensive (less than $150) link to the Internet inside the home, and, some analysts say, a cost-effective entertainment alternative to cable.

Richard Doherty, analyst with The Envisioneering Group in Seaford, N.Y., said that at some point consumers are going to realize the cost of subscribing to premium cable channels such as Showtime, Starz and HBO, and renting multiple set-top boxes isn’t worth it. Doherty envisions a scenario in which the most recent TV network programming would be available on media players.

Indeed, Sony announced last week that it would be the first to offer subscription-based Hulu Plus on its PlayStation 3 game systems.

“Recent content might be a reason to keep the cable operator, while anything older would be a reason not to,” Doherty said.

Phil Leigh, analyst with Inside Digital Media in Tampa Bay, Fla., said studios and TV networks “vastly overestimate” their monopoly on entertainment options to consumers. He said that as mainstream households discover Internet access via connected televisions and media players, they will realize that there are “lots of other things to do” than watch what TV and cable dictate.

The analyst said it’s no surprise YouTube, which caters to free video content, dominates online video consumption. With the popular social media site now easily streamed to the TV, a larger percentage of the population will explore it, Leigh said.

“There is so much content on YouTube germane to individual interests, such as cultural programming,” he said. “And it’s not junk. It’s truly high-quality content.”

Connected Blu/HDTV/Media Player Conundrum

The landscape for connected devices includes three options: Blu-ray players with streaming capability, media players delivering PC-based content and streaming, and HDTV units with Web access.

“There is a difference there,” said Andrew Horwitz, senior director product line management, network and video products, Seagate retail division.

Horwitz said the advantage to buying a media player or connected Blu-ray player over a connected HDTV is obsolescence. He said consumers buying an HDTV with an internal processor risk having a dated unit in less than five years.

The executive cited the recent launch of YouTube XL, which requires Flash 10 capability, as an example of technology advancements that mandate the ability upgrade connected devices.

“The convergence is going to be [between] Blu-ray players, media players and DVRs — those are going to be the battlegrounds,” Horwitz said.

Content Is King

Media players such as the Roku HD-XR, Seagate Free Agent GoFlex TV and Western Digital TV Live Plus players all offer Netflix streaming, YouTube videos, Pandora Internet radio and Flickr photo archiving, among other channels.

Seagate and Roku have aggressively expanded channel selections in an effort to attract users and developers. Roku recently launched a series of new initiatives, including Roku Newscaster, which features repurposed content from CNN, National Public Radio, PBS, BBC, CBS, NBC, ESPN, Fox News, HBO and CNET.com, among others.

Saratoga, Calif.-based Roku, which cut its teeth as the first player to stream Netflix content, has nearly 40 channels, including Bigstar.TV (subscription-based independent films), Radiotime (allows users to listen to their favorite radio station) and NASA TV.

Seagate has 10 channels, including Mediafly, VTuner and Picasa, in addition to video feeds featuring 17 international news programs and 17 separate feeds from CNN, ABC News, NBC, Fox, CBS and MSNBC, among others.

Similar to Roku, news content on GoFlex TV is aggregated from archived podcasts of “Countdown With Keith Olberman,” “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams,” “Anderson Cooper 360,” “Meet the Press With David Gregory,” “CBS Evening News With Katie Couric” and “Larry King Live,” among others.

Business and technology content includes repurposed programs such as “Mad Money With Jim Cramer” and “Personal Technology With Walt Mossberg from The Wall Street Journal,” among others. Sports content includes podcasts from ESPN such as “Pardon the Interruption,” “Around the Horn” and “Mike & Mike in the Morning.”

“It’s a very simple, clean implementation of content that is readily available today,” said Brian Jaquet, director of corporate communications with Roku.

Jaquet said Roku Newscaster was created by a developer who created software capable of aggregating RSS video feeds and podcasts already available online to the public. He said the channel was submitted and then vetted regarding content copyrights.

He said rebroadcasts of “The Today Show” in the morning on NBC are available on Roku by noon. “The Evening News With Brian Williams” from the previous evening is available the next morning. Jaquet said Newscaster differs from Mediafly, which he said compiles upwards of 25,000 different podcasts and video feeds on a single channel.

“The amount of content [on Mediafly] can be a little bit overwhelming,” Jaquet said. “Newscaster chose to focus on content a little bit more relevant to most people.”

With more than 500,000 Roku devices sold, Jaquet said the player represents an attractive option to developers. He said Roku was one of the first players to offer Amazon VOD, and the first to offer UFC and MLB.tv access to the television. The company is partnering with social networking site MOG.com to deliver personalized music services.

“As developers are looking for ways to diversify the distribution of [proprietary and third-party] content, we have become a very attractive partner,” Jaquet said.

Indeed, analyst Doherty said the burgeoning growth of media players should be a godsend to aspiring computer programmers.

“If I was in college right now, I’d be writing code or leaving school to do it,” Doherty said.

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