Sunday, November 22, 2009

Flash Beta 10.1 and the Future of Online Video

Easily one of the most interesting developments in technology from this past week was the release of the beta version of Flash 10.1. What makes this version of the almost ubiquitous, and often annoying, browser plug-in so earth-shaking? The latest iteration of Flash promises to make a huge leap in the technology’s usability by enabling hardware acceleration of Flash video decoding. Prior to this beta release, all Flash video had had to be decoded by the CPU, a task that was very processor intensive, to the point that it made high definition and/or full screen Flash video essentially unwatchable because of poor quality, but also stuttering, crashes, etc. So even as Flash video has become the de-facto standard for online video streaming, powering such dominating sites as YouTube and Hulu, it has retained an almost fatal flaw for large format viewing. Flash’s weakness in this area was especially ironic as so many technologies and devices are striving today to bring Internet video precisely to large HDTVs in living rooms, as the next evolution of media distribution. Hardware acceleration of video on PCs is not new, however, and in fact, both nVidia and ATI have enabled hardware acceleration of h.264 video on their more recent video cards and GPU’s. In addition, integrated graphics solutions like nVidia’s Ion platform have been designed specifically to create compact, low wattage HTPCs with very modest CPUs capable of easily playing back 1080p h.264 content at high bit-rates. A glaring weakness for these video capable HTPCs and nettops, however, was their obvious inability to display Flash video well, even when the underlying codec in the video was h.264, because of how Flash functioned in all versions prior to 10.1. Finally, Adobe has addressed the problem and the 10.1 beta does in fact offload much of the video decoding processing from the CPU to the GPU, and based on my own tests, now lets HTPCs successfully show full screen and HD Flash based video. Prior to 10.1 I would never attempt to watch services like Hulu in full screen via my mini-ITX Ion-based HTPC, but now that is essentially not a problem any longer. Merely uninstalling Flash 10 and then installing the 10.1 beta made an obvious and crucial difference.

It will likely be a few months before Adobe rolls out 10.1 to everyone, but the impact of this move will likely be felt both in the short and long terms. Short term, hardware decoded Flash video could be a real boost tonettop PC’s and netbooks, allowing them to really become cheap and easy media playback devices. In the longer view, however, Flash’s innovation here could really cement its central role as they delivery avenue for video of all kinds over the Internet, dealing serious blows to both Microsoft’s Quicksilver, but also any other competitors still out there. Unknown is what Flash video’s dominance will mean for the file-sharing and downloading communities. Will video pirates move away from downloading entire shows via Bittorrent to instead watch free streaming episodes on Hulu -like services if quality differences disappear? Will more cable customers ditch their TV services in favor of going completely for over-the-top video? Such suppositions may be quite speculative at this point, but with the changes to Flash on the horizon, they are becoming more plausible every day.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sezmi offers a new kind of TV service

Sezmi, a Silicon Valley startup that's pioneering a new type of TV service, is opening up a public test of its system today in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Consumers who are accepted into the program will be able to test out Sezmi's service for free for about three months.

In Los Angeles, Sezmi's service will offer cable TV channels such as the Comedy Channel, TNT and CNN; Internet video from such sites as YouTube; some 6,000 on-demand movies and television shows, as well as local broadcast channels. In the Bay Area, Sezmi won't be offering cable programming — at least not initially — but will include everything else.

After the three-month trial period, Belmont-based Sezmi will begin charging customers who continue to use the service. But the subscription rates will be considerably lower than those charged by cable and satellite operators for similar services.

"There's a lot of frustration among people," said Buno Pati, Sezmi's CEO. "They feel like they're paying a lot of money and getting an antiquated experience."

Sezmi's service differs from those of traditional pay-television operators. Its customers get local broadcast channels via the public airwaves. But the company also relies on those airwaves, via deals with local broadcasters, to send pay-TV channels to its customers. It also plans to send on-demand and Internet programming to consumers via customers' broadband connections.

The company, whose service
Sezmi, a Silicon Valley startup that's pioneering a new type of TV service, is opening up a public test of its system today in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Consumers who are accepted into the program will be able to test out Sezmi's service for free for about three months.

In Los Angeles, Sezmi's service will offer cable TV channels such as the Comedy Channel, TNT and CNN; Internet video from such sites as YouTube; some 6,000 on-demand movies and television shows, as well as local broadcast channels. In the Bay Area, Sezmi won't be offering cable programming — at least not initially — but will include everything else.

After the three-month trial period, Belmont-based Sezmi will begin charging customers who continue to use the service. But the subscription rates will be considerably lower than those charged by cable and satellite operators for similar services.

"There's a lot of frustration among people," said Buno Pati, Sezmi's CEO. "They feel like they're paying a lot of money and getting an antiquated experience."

Sezmi's service differs from those of traditional pay-television operators. Its customers get local broadcast channels via the public airwaves. But the company also relies on those airwaves, via deals with local broadcasters, to send pay-TV channels to its customers. It also plans to send on-demand and Internet programming to consumers via customers' broadband connections.

The company, whose service
Sezmi, a Silicon Valley startup that's pioneering a new type of TV service, is opening up a public test of its system today in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Consumers who are accepted into the program will be able to test out Sezmi's service for free for about three months.

In Los Angeles, Sezmi's service will offer cable TV channels such as the Comedy Channel, TNT and CNN; Internet video from such sites as YouTube; some 6,000 on-demand movies and television shows, as well as local broadcast channels. In the Bay Area, Sezmi won't be offering cable programming — at least not initially — but will include everything else.

After the three-month trial period, Belmont-based Sezmi will begin charging customers who continue to use the service. But the subscription rates will be considerably lower than those charged by cable and satellite operators for similar services.

"There's a lot of frustration among people," said Buno Pati, Sezmi's CEO. "They feel like they're paying a lot of money and getting an antiquated experience."

Sezmi's service differs from those of traditional pay-television operators. Its customers get local broadcast channels via the public airwaves. But the company also relies on those airwaves, via deals with local broadcasters, to send pay-TV channels to its customers. It also plans to send on-demand and Internet programming to consumers via customers' broadband connections.

The company, whose service has been long in development, is also getting a boost from investors. It says it recently raised $25 million in a third round of venture funding from previous investors such as Morgenthaler Ventures, Omni Capital and TD Fund and a new, unnamed, "strategic" investor.

Sezmi's service includes a sophisticated antenna system designed to tune in sometimes finicky digital television signals and a DVR with 1-terabyte of storage space — good enough to store about 1,000 hours of programming, Sezmi says.

The service is designed to be customized for individual members of a particular household. Customers can personalize the "home" screen they see when they log in. More importantly, Sezmi's service will record a particular list of programs for each user.

The test that starts today is focused on Los Angeles. The company plans to allow anyone from Los Angeles who meets certain requirements to participate. Those requirements include having a broadband connection and being able to get decent digital television reception. About 80 to 85 percent of the L.A. area should meet that latter requirement, company officials said.

Sezmi plans a more limited test program in the Bay Area. Company officials did not say how many people will participate in the Bay Area or how it will select participants. Interested people can apply through the company's Web site at www.sezmi.com.

Following the free test period, Sezmi plans to charge consumers $4.99 a month for its service, which doesn't include the pay-TV channels. For its package that includes those channels, it plans to charge $24.99.

In contrast, Comcast charges $15 or more a month for its limited basic cable service, which provides only local broadcast stations and does not include a DVR or on-demand programming.

Satellite and television operators typically charge $45 or more for packages that include basic cable stations.

However, unlike the typical satellite- or cable-TV customer, consumers who plan to continue using the Sezmi service will have to buy its set-top box and antenna. Sezmi plans to charge new customers who sign up after the trial period $300 for the equipment.

It plans to offer a discount to consumers who participate in the trial.

The company has already signed deals with partners in the retail and broadband industries that could eventually lower the price that consumers pay for its equipment, bringing it more in line with those charged by rival providers, Sezmi officials said.

Saturday, November 7, 2009