Sunday, August 14, 2011

PlayLater Beta DVR on your computer

PlayLater: Cool, But Why Do I Want It?
by mike

A little while ago, I got a chance to take MediaMall Technology’s PlayLater for a spin as part of their public Beta. PlayLater reuses the PlayOn technology (of which I’m a huge fan) to DVR online TV shows and movies, recording them on a computer for later playback. Let’s take a look at it.
PlayLater Basics

PlayLater allows users to record streaming video from a variety of internet sources like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and many others. Users can then watch the video at their convenience, even if the internet is down. From the PlayLater website:

PlayLater is groundbreaking new technology that gives you the freedom to record your favorite online videos and enjoy them on your schedule, even if you aren’t connected to the internet. As more and more of you are getting your favorite shows online, we felt that it was time the rest of your entertainment technology caught up. After all, the same reasons that apply to recording TV shows and movies in the old world apply to the new world, right? Convenience, access, and frankly — sometimes you don’t have an Internet connection available and that shouldn’t bar you from watching your favorite shows. The future of entertainment is online and now you can record the future.

The PlayLater installation is quite painless and went without a hitch. I was quickly hunting for the Daily Show and downloading videos. I was able get some downloading going. One thing that quickly caught my attention was that PlayLater really was a DVR platform. After living with the internet a while, it didn’t even cross my mind that PlayLater would take 30 minutes to record a 30 minute TV shows. It could download it faster, right?! Unfortunately, not so much. The technology under the hood re-encodes the video as it plays, so it’s just like my TV in that the show has to play in real-time to record it.

The 30 minutes aside, PlayLater delivered on what they claimed. I managed to record and later watch a Daily Show on my PC. At the time of my review work, PlayLater could only play back on a PC. They have since merged the technology with their PlayOn platform to allow videos to stream to any PlayOn compatible device.

Although PlayLater did deliver on the main claim, this is obviously a beta product. It seems like a lot of careful thought has been put into the DVR technology, but the user interface is less than ideal. This is definitely not a Tivo. Resizing the main window causes visual artifacts. A list view of shows where the description would seem when I hovers over the name would be great to allow fast queuing.

All little things, but Apple has shown that polish matters. These are user interface issues that can easily be squeezed out before the beta closes. The core technology appears solid and is ripe for building up upon. All of this doesn’t answer the more fundamental question: why do I want it?
But Why Would I Want PlayLater?

I have yet to understand what niche PlayLater is serving. It’s cool technology, but what problem are they solving? Their stated reason for bringing this out is summed up by:

After all, the same reasons that apply to recording TV shows and movies in the old world apply to the new world, right?

The problem is that the same reasons don’t apply. I originally got a DVR because my favorite TV shows came on at a specific time that was inconvenient for me. I was tired that night, or my daughter wasn’t going to sleep and I was in her room, or it’s a daytime show and I’m at work. None of these apply to streaming video. Daily Show episodes two weeks back are available on Hulu at my whim. I can watch them when I want. Anything on Netflix is available when I want it. The only reasons I’ve come up with to justify PlayLater are:

I’m about to travel or take my computer somewhere without the internet and I want to watch a show. This seems legitimate but strikes me as a very small market.
The streaming channel is about to drop the show and I want to record it for later. This requires a lot of foresight for the instant gratification crowd.

I can’t help but think that MediaMall is dangling this out there to see if something emerges.
Conclusions on PlayLater

PlayLater delivered on what they set out to do. They created a DVR system for online videos. The technology has potential once the rough edges are sanded down. What’s missing is PlayLater’s reason for existence. Streaming video is based on the “cloud” holding the videos until I’m ready to watch, and that’s in place right now.

I can’t wait to see what the PlayLater team will do as they exit beta and put a polished product into the market.

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