Roku Gains Amazon, Boxee Loses Hulu: Online Content Ups And Downs
Two months back during the Consumer Electronics Show, Amazon announced (PDF) that its Video On Demand online distribution service (originally called Unbox) would soon be coming to Roku’s digital video player (ironically a setop ‘box’, and originally called the Netflix Player). Here’s what I wrote then:
As an increasing flood of competitors became Netflix-cognizant, I wondered what card Roku had up its sleeve to keep its Netflix Player relevant, believing that adding high-definition support alone wasn’t sufficient to keep product sales healthy. Amazon Video On Demand rental and purchase support neatly augments the existing Netflix capabilities of Roku’s box; Amazon gives Roku access to current Hollywood blockbusters that Netflix Watch Instantly largely lacks.
I’ve been a beta tester of Roku’s Amazon support since January 26 (almost two weeks prior to the ‘official’ private beta date), just as I previously was a guinea pig for the unit’s high-definition UI and Netflix content streaming-and-playback capabilities. Amazon support’s been rock-solid for me since the first firmware upgrade I received (although, I must confess, I don’t particularly recommend you drop $2.99 on a rental of MacHEADS), so I’m not quite sure what took the two companies so long to ‘go gold’ (PDF). It’s possible to conduct rental (movies only) and purchase (movies and TV episodes) directly through the device (which Amazon refers to as ‘from-the-couch’), after you pair the Roku Player to your account via a code that the Amazon website supplies (much as Netflix does) and separately input a PIN payment-approval code you’ve assigned. Alternatively, you can queue up your viewing material through the Amazon website.
For purchases, the title gets added to your Video Library, and you are subsequently able to stream it on-demand (two concurrent streams max) from Amazon’s servers to the Roku Player, a computer (OS X or Windows), and Sony Bravia networked TVs. As well, you can download purchased content for offline viewing on up to two devices (PCs and/or TiVos) and two video-ready and PlaysForSure DRM-cognizant portable devices. For rentals, the 24-hour viewing restriction ‘clock’ starts as soon as you complete the transaction…unfortunately you don’t have several weeks to begin watching the title, as you do with the Xbox Video Marketplace, iTunes Store and other online rental services. Speaking of viewing, the standard-definition, two-channel-audio content playback begins in less than a minute after I press ‘play’, on my ~2.5 Mbps peak downstream DSL connection. One other key perk for Roku; by virtue of the partnership, it gains Amazon as another key retail outlet for its hardware.
Hollywood giveth…but alas, Hollywood also taketh away. I’ve written numerous times before about my enthusiasm for the Hulu streaming service primarily bankrolled by NBC and Fox. Hulu was particularly beneficial before I got (fairly) solid over-the-air digital TV viewing and recording going here, but it’s still of great value… this non-subscription-television fan of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Battlestar Galactica has got to get his ‘fix’ somehow! What I don’t think I’ve mentioned before, however, is a service called Boxee, which until recently was a common way of watching Hulu material on something other than a computer screen (i.e. on a TV).
Perhaps the most common use for a hacked first-generation Xbox, aside (alas) from playing pirated copies of games, was as a means of running a media hub application called the XBMC. In more recent times, XBMC’s developers have also ported the program to Linux, Windows, the Mac OS X (imagine, for example, a TV-tethered Mac mini) and its derivative running on the Apple TV. And because XBMC is an open-source product, several variants have emerged, notably OS X-only Plex and social networking-augmented Boxee.
Two weeks ago, Hulu called and told us their content partners were asking them to remove Hulu from boxee.
Hulu’s corresponding blog entry bolsters Boxee’s story, while also making it clear that the decision wasn’t one that Hulu necessarily agreed with:
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.
Respondents to both the Boxee and Hulu blog posts seemed bewildered by the decision, thereby revealing their charming utter lack of business acumen. For the content providers and their advertising partners, the good thing about Hulu is that the embedded ads can’t be skipped. The bad thing about Hulu, conversely, is that there are far fewer ads per episode as compared to a normal television broadcast (enjoy it while you can). And therein lies the crux of the conflict; the content providers rightly or wrongly see Hulu-based viewing on a computer as incremental to television viewing, not a replacement for it. Therefore their objection to Boxee; it bypasses the PC and provides a TV-based viewing alternative.
Long-time readers won’t be surprised to hear that I think Hulu’s content ‘partners’ are fighting a losing battle, much as their record label predecessors did. Nonetheless, they seem determined to ignore the lessons of history, preferring litigation threats as a desperate short-term attempt to prep up outmoded business models, versus reinventing themselves in order to ensure their long-term relevance. In response, hackers rapidly figured out how to get Hulu back on both Boxee and XBMC. Shortly thereafter, fellow XBMC derivative Plex added Hulu support; I guess the program’s developers are claiming ignorance of the issue in the absence of a specific cease-and-desist request from Hulu? Of course, XBMC and its offspring aren’t the only way to get Hulu on your television; there’s the Secondrun.tv plugin for Windows Media Center, for example, or the Understudy plugin for OS X’s Front Row application.
SageTV demo’d Hulu support on the company’s HD Theater STB at CES. And, if you’ve got a Windows system handy, along with an Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or other DLNA-cognizant media extender device, there’s PlayOn, which I’ve written about many times before. It’s now out of beta, and developer MediaMall Technologies has been playing an interesting cat-and-mouse game with Hulu in recent weeks. For a while, 480p playback was blocked; PlayOn users were forced to hard-code their software settings to select the 360-line video presentation, whose inferior quality was especially noticeable when expanded to fill a large-screen display. User conjecture postulated that Hulu had implemented Adobe Flash’s secure RTMP DRM scheme. Regardless of the root cause, MediaMall Technologies figured out a workaround, and all’s been well again for the past week or so…at least until the company gets its cease-and-desist request from Hulu?