HomeTech Takeaways: AirTV's Novel Plan to Bring Local Channels to SlingTV

Can a Hyrbrid Hardware / Software Approach Help Bring Regionalized Networks Into the Fold?

Dave Zatz, of ZatzNotFunny, released a post this week outlining a bold new plan from Sling TV known as AirTV. Through the monitoring of trademark applications, combined with what Dave cites as a well-timed tip from a "trusted source", his article outlines a "novel end-around" circumventing many of the challenges involved with licensing over-the-top content. 

AirTV is essentially a re-tooled SlingBox with a built-in OTA tuner. The goal appears to be the incorporation of large national networks (think ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox) into the SlingTV streaming service launched back in January of 2015.

The box features little more than an antenna hookup and an ethernet port. The assumption is that by installing this device in their homes consumers would then have access to local OTA broadcasts of their regional affiliates included with the paid channels currently available on SlingTV's $20 a month service.

Details on the hardware cost and / or additional monthly fees are not currently available. There is also no word on whether the AirTV product will offer any sort of cloud DVR service for local OTA channels, or if it will serve to offer live broadcasts only. 

The Takeaway: 

No one covers the evolving OTT landscape quite like Dave Zatz. In typical fashion he does a great job dissecting the multiple facets of this story.

It is noted that most of the challenges involved with large-scale OTT offerings are not associated with on-boarding cable channels, but rather with getting the national networks to play ball. This is due to the scale and complexity of their collective relationships with regional affiliates, whose business relies in large part on keeping the status quo in place. AirTV's approach would effectively negate their concerns by serving regionalized  "versions" of the national networks amongst SlingTV's various OTT channels. 

We've seen that OTT is hard. Reports widely indicate that Apple has tried, and failed. Sony appears to be struggling with their Vue service. And existing services that have gotten off the ground are limited in their offerings. AirTV's hybrid hardware / software approach is novel and no-doubt makes the product one to watch.

Read the whole ZatzNotFunny piece here...

- Jason Griffing

HomeTech Takeaways: Layer3 TV's Plan to Take On Comcast

The Company Has a Wildly Ambitious Goal to Re-Invent Cable - But Can it Work?

Wired recently released a piece detailing a "crazy" plan by Denver-based Layer3 TV to build "the next Comcast". While most video startups are taking aim at pure streaming / over-the-top services, Layer3 is taking a different, and very ambitious approach.

The simplest way to think of Layer3 TV's offering is, in fact, to think of it as a replacement for your current cable box. Instead of another OTT set-top box which relies on an internet signal (typically from a company like Comcast or Time Warner), Layer3 has built out their own infrastructure. This includes a massive server farm, a satellite antenna array, and a lease on their own 12,000 mile fiber backbone. The promise, of course, is that by having their own infrastructure Layer3 can ensure a level of performance and reliability that OTT solutions simply cannot guarantee.   

Their service, which has been test in two upscale Texas neighborhoods under the name Umio, will offfer more than 300 channels. These traditional offerings will be placed into a sleek, unified guide right alongside dozens of internet TV options such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. No more switching sources and fumbling with apps to find what you want. It's all there. Expect the service to run $80-$150 a month, depending on the number of TV's in the home. 

The Takeaway: 

Jeff Binder, Layer3's CEO, is a successful entrepreneur who sold his video-on-demand startup Broadbus Technologies to Motorola for $200M back in 2006. His CTO, Dave Fellows, is a cable industry legend, known mainly for his instrumental role in orchestrating Comcast's "Triple Play" bundling strategy during his time as CTO the company.  Layer3 is well funded and by all accounts have assembled a very experienced management team. 

Layer3's approach to service in the test markets was interesting, if difficult to scale. Service technicians arrive for scheduled installation appointments on-time (what a novel concept) and in a BMW. Yes, a BMW. And while the type of vehicle my tech arrives in strikes me as unimportant, it's clearly a move by the company to differentiate on high-levels of service. Only time will tell if they can keep that up at scale.  

The bigger question is whether or not millennials will be willing to pay for a service that looks, in terms of pricing at least, an awful lot like the pay TV services they're currently revolting against. On that point Layer3 doesn't seem too concerned. According to the Wired article the company estimates that they can run a very profitable business with just 1% of the pay TV market, which equates to just less than 1 million subscribers. 

What is clear is that consumers are tired of the status quo, and that current OTT offerings are falling short in a number of key areas. Layer3's novel approach to the problem is fascinating, and certainly one we'll be keeping our eyes on.

Read the whole Wired write-up here...

- Jason Griffing

HomeTech Takeaways: Another One Bites the Dust - Are the Days Numbered for Staples Connect?

All Signs Point to the Fact That Staples Has Given Up on the Smart Home

Mike Wolf, of the Smart Home Show, released a blog post outlining what appears to be the imminent demise of Staples' home automation hub, the Staples Connect. While an official end-of-life announcement has not been made, Mike effectively points to numerous signs that indicate the product's days are numbered. These signs include:

  • A completel lack of social media activity since August of 2015
  • A hilariously-clueless response to a recent phone inquiry
  • The hub's absence on Staples.com
  • Most importantly - a number of posts on the support site indicating that support is ending

The Takeaway: 

Despite the awkward pairing of home technology products and office supplies, we thought the Staples Connect looked like a pretty promising platform. We discussed it length way back on Episode 7. Staples had a reputable backend partner in Zonoff, and appeared to be building a healthy ecosystem at the time. In recent times however the company had gotten very quiet.

There's not much to this story beyond the simple fact that breaking into the smart home is hard, as we've discussed before. Some of the largest companies in the world are struggling to devote the resources necessary to make a sustained push. 

I remain bullish on the long term outlook for companies like Apple and Nest. But I suspect strongly that Staples has removed itself from the smart home running for good. As Mike alluded to, perhaps it's best they focus on toner and reams of paper. 

Read Mike's full analysis here...

- Jason Griffing

HomeTech Takeaways: Vizio Thinks Your Handheld Remote is Dumb

company boldly Proclaims the era of Physical button Remotes is "Going to End" - But should we believe them?

Vizio got some great press this week following the release of the 2016 P-Series Home Theater Display line. The series boasts all the features you'd expect from a new TV, such as 4K, HDR, and a proprietary color gamut technology the company is calling Ultra Color Spectrum. But what really had the tech press buzzing was the company's novel approach to the remote control. 

In addition to a small, traditional IR remote, the new P-Series TV's will ship with a 6-inch tablet included. The tablet, which runs on a standard version of Android Lollipop, comes pre-installed with a Vizio app dubbed SmartCast. 

Developed in conjunction with Google, the SmartCast system is essentially a baked-in version of Google Cast, allowing users to browse content from any video streaming app available for Android, then wirelessly "cast" it to the Vizio display.

What makes Vizio's approach completely novel is the fact that the P-Series TV's contain absolutely no on-screen display. There are no on-screen menus and no built-in apps. All of these functions are instead served via the SmartCast app. It's an approach that Matt McRae, CTO of Vizio, thinks will supplant the idea of a traditional hard-button, handheld remote.

The Takeaway: 

At it's most fundamental level SmartCast amounts to little more than an ability to use Google Cast without needing any additional hardware (i.e. an external dongle). In and of itself this doesn't strike me as that big of a deal. Consumers have had the option to do this for years using mirroring technologies such as Apple's AirPlay, and more recently Google Cast. 

What does resonate with me is the idea that we need to separate ourselves from the horrid smartTV platforms that manufacturers have been shoving down our throats for years. I've yet to meet a single person who has had anything positive to say about the experience of using these built in apps. They're little more than gimmicks crafted to appease the marketing department. Universally these platforms are poorly developed, poorly supported, unreliable, and downright clunky. On this front, I applaud Vizio for thinking outside of the box.

I part ways with Vizio when it comes to the idea that SmartCast is going to make the traditional handheld remote irrelevant. An article on The Verge quotes Matt McRae as saying "The era of having a couple of buttons on a physical remote that sits there and does nothing else is going to end,"  and "We’re the ones who are going to end it."

Don't hold your breath. Physical buttons aren't going anywhere anytime soon. I can think of countless scenarios when a simple, physical button will be far preferable to an app. Take channel surfing for instance (yes some people still do that). What about adjusting the volume? How about quickly pausing a show to go grab another beer? You really want to fumble with an app when your drink is empty? 

Notably absent were details about how SmartCast will (or won't) communicate with other devices in a home theater such as AV receivers and cable boxes. This strikes me as a pretty big omission for a company claiming they're about to replace the remote control. 

With all of that said, the release of SmartCast might mean that fewer consumers will be inclined to use smartTV platforms as a primary streaming solution. If that holds true, then I'm all for it.  

Read a full write-up from The Verge here... 

- Jason Griffing

HomeTech Takeaways: Sonos Still Doesn't Care

Dealer Base Can Keep Talking, But Sonos Isn't Listening...

Julie Jacobson published a piece on CEPro this week that had a lot of home technology pros smiling self righteously. The article cites a letter sent by a Mat Lindstedt, a gold-level Sonos dealer and owner of an integration company in San Jose, to Sonos' CEO John MacFarlane. In his letter, presumably sent before the recent shakeup at Sonos made its way into the headlines, Lindstedt offers his advice on how Sonos can "stay relevant". 

Amongst of smattering of more random and disjointed advice, Lindstedt instructs MacFarlane that "Amazon Echo is a huge game changer for the industry" and that "Sonos should be worried". Lindstedt adds that in his opinion "Sonos is big enough now to create their own streaming service". Prescient advice.

Lindstedt's letter clearly echoes Julie Jacobsen's sentiment that Sonos has rested on its laurels for too long, and that the company had better wake up to what home technology pros have been telling them all along. 

The Takeaway: 

Ignoring the argument about whether or not Sonos got lazy, I couldn't help but notice a lack of emphasis on the most important point to CE Pro readers. Sonos doesn't care how home technology pros feel. To think that Sonos concerns itself with the opinions of it's CEDIA dealer base is folly. That's been proven more times than I can count.  Nothing we've seen in the news recently indicates that this has changed.
If MacFarlane's original blog post had been intended to appease the CEDIA crowd it would have had a much different tone. It would have covered things like an open API, an outdoor model, AirPlay integration, and more robust surround sound options. Instead what we got was nothing more than vagaries about how streaming is the future (you don't say!), and how MacFarlane thinks Alexa has got it goin' on. 

The recent strategic shift at Sonos may be symptomatic of a flattening in sales. But don't assume the resulting pivot will have anything to do with what the CEDIA dealer base really wants. Clearly Sonos sees it as CEDIA's job to adapt to them, and not the other way around.

Read the entire CEPro Article here...

- Jason Griffing

HomeTech Takeaways: SmartThings Issues Apology for Critical Service Disruptions

Failure Results in Limited Access to the Platform's New Smart Home Monitor Security Service

A SmartThings Developer Advocate posted a topic on the company's community page this week titled "UPDATE: Recent SmartThings User Experience & Platform Performance". His post outlined a critical degradation in the recent performance of the platform. The root cause of the issue is cited as "high load on the database and messaging infrastructure". As a result many SmartThings users were left with limited access to programmed routines, various SmartApps, and most critically Smart Home Monitor, the company's new security initiative. 

Without getting too nerdy, the remainder of his post goes on to explain that "Moving forward, [SmartThings] will continue to expand our database cluster and prioritize rewriting and optimizing our data access library to allow us to scale at a higher level." Naturally he closes the post with an apology to users for the inconvenience, and an urging to work with the support team as they diligently focus on restoring stability.

The Takeaway: 

One of our listeners was kind of enough to tip me off about this story. At the time of this publishing I've been unable to find any other reporting on it, which strikes me as surprising. It seems the SmartThings online community would agree. At the time of this writing the post acknowledging the issue has garnered some 350 replies. This in only about 4 days. 

Not surprisingly the SmartThings community was quick to pry for greater clarity as to the real cause of the issue. What would be behind such a sudden, and unexpected spike in server traffic? And more importantly why wasn't the platform leveraging readily available technologies that would have allowed it to scale automatically, and without issue, to a surge in demand?

In a world where everything, including our home security systems, is headed to the cloud, this story serves as a great reminder that local control / processing still has its place in the smart home. In the words of one angry user: "It would be nice if [SmartThings] focused on local processing and not just selective local processing. Then we wouldn't rely so heavily on [their] servers." It's hard to argue with that...

Check out the SmartThings community post here...

- Jason Griffing

HomeTech Takeaways: The Frustratingly Predictable Case Against Screening Room

Usual Suspects lining Up with Buckets of Cold Water...

Last week I shared some thoughts on a compelling initiative aimed at disrupting the way Hollywood blockbusters make their way into the home. This week a piece surfaced on Wired throwing a massive bucket of cold water on the whole idea. And if that weren't enough John Sciacca put up a dismissive piece of his own over at  Residential Systems. 

The two articles combine to make it very clear that Screening Room has massive hills to climb in order to become a reality, as if that needed clarification. Wired's article places most of its emphasis on the political challenges associated with disrupting a very entrenched business model. John Sciacca's article more effectively highlights the technical challenges involved with copy protection, citing the ridiculous lengths to which Prima Cinema has been forced to go to appease the rights holders.  

The Takeaway: 

Much of what these articles point out is irrefutable. Screening Room will face huge challenges in the both the technical and political arenas. What gets my goat is the frustrating predictability of the arguments posed by opponents of the idea. Namely: It will lead to more piracy, and it threatens an entrenched model. 

Belaboring the technical difficulties associated with copy protection ignores a key point: piracy is already rampant. Opponents of Screening Room, who argue that this initiative would only exacerbate the problem willfully leave this inconvenient fact out of the conversation.

Opponents also conveniently ignore the fact the anti-piracy measures do little to stop the actual pirates. In reality they only serve to make access to entertainment a whole lot less convenient for people like you and me. To that end I could just as easily make the speculative argument that a product like Screening Room would decrease piracy by finally providing a legitimate option for consumers who might otherwise resort to torrent sites. You know who you are.

The argument being made by theater owners (aka exhibitors) is even more frustrating. Forming a case against innovation while citing nothing more than personal interests is unoriginal and uninspiring. Perhaps they should review Blockbuster's playbook circa 2000. There may be some lessons buried in there.

Will Screening Room succeed? It's anyone's guess. Will something resembling Screening Room be a reality someday? I wouldn't bet against it. In the meantime prepare for a lot of kicking and screaming from parties looking to stave off the inevitable. 

Read the full piece from Wired here...

- Jason Griffing

HomeTech Takeaways: Who Needs the Cinema?

Sean Parker, of Napster fame, is looking to put his stamp on the movie industry, but not in the way you might expect. Screening Room, Parker's latest project, is aiming to bring first-run movies into your home on the same day they release in theaters. 

Screening Room made headlines this week when it was announced that a number of Hollywood heavyweights, including Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and Ron Howard, are backing the project. Users would be required to purchase a $150 set top box equipped with anti-piracy technology. Movies will be available to rent for $50, which would allow viewing for up to 48 hours.

The Takeaway: 

It's great to see a concept so innovative get the backing of Hollywood. Screening Room's model takes clear aim at a huge market segment which is precluded by various responsibilities from spending an evening at the movies, young families for example. And as a father to a 1 year old, with another on the way, I can say definitively that it's a service I would use. 

While $50 a pop isn't cheap, it's not all that much more than heading to the cinema once you account for tickets and refreshments. Layer on the convenience of plopping on my own couch after a day of work (and chasing around a toddler) and I'm all in. 

It's also refreshing to think there might finally be a legit way to watch first-run movies at home for someone like myself who's not into pirating. What a novel concept. Where do I sign?

Read the whole story here...

HomeTech Takeaways: Sonos Shifts Gears

A blog post from Sonos CEO John MacFarlane got the tech world talking this week, and for once it wasn't all roses. The company, which has had a hugely successful run since practically inventing the category of wireless audio, apparently feels a need to shift gears. 

In his blog post MacFarlane discusses how the company is "doubling down on our long-held conviction that streaming music is the dominant form of consumption now and in the future...". The sub-heading of this blog post section places an (unsurprising) emphasis on paid streaming services. More on that below in the takeaway section...

Additionally MacFarlane goes on to discuss the company's belief in the importance of voice control moving forward, although he stops short of spelling out exactly what this means for Sonos. 

Perhaps most indicative of a substantial shift taking place at the company, the post also mentions an unspecified number of layoffs set to take place shortly.

The Takeaway: 

While MacFarlane doesn't spell it out, there can be little doubt that Sonos is eyeing the launch of its own paid streaming music service. It's hard to blame Sonos for growing discontent with one-time hardware sales, while watching services like Apple Music and Spotify rake in the monthly fees.

MacFarlane's section on voice control struck me as purposefully vague. While singing the praises of what Amazon has done with Alexa, he makes no specific mention of how a service from Sonos would compare. Will it leverage Alexa, compete with Alexa, or be something different entirely? Hard to say at this point, but definitely something I look forward to discussing on this week's podcast episode

On a slight side note, one couldn't be blamed for speculating that these moves are aimed at making Sonos a more appealing acquisition target. But of course, only time will tell...

Read VentureBeat's take on the story here...

HomeTech Takeaways: A 4K-First

Videophiles rejoiced at some big news from DirecTV this week. First the company announced an April 4th launch date for its new 24/7 4K channel. This channel will be part of the company's Ultimate and Premiere programming packages. 

Shortly after the launch, on April 7, DirecTV announced that they will be broadcasting golf's famed Masters Tournament at Augusta in 4K. This marks the first ever 4K broadcast of a live event here in the US (Canada beat us to it if you can believe that). 

To take advantage of these 4K broadcasts users must have the latest Genie 4K DVR, the HR54. Viewing on additional TV's will require 4K Genie Mini's, with a hardwired coax connection to the network. The broadcasts will also be available any DirecTV Ready TV. Importantly, every device in the signal chain must be HDCP 2.2 compliant or else... well, you know... 

The Takeaway: 

I find the launch of a dedicated 4K channel significant, but not all that exciting in and of itself. The live broadcast of the Masters is a far more compelling story. That networks are starting to overcome the technical hurdles associated with 4K broadcasting is a great sign. This bodes well for the future of live 4K content which to-date has been limited to steaming and downloading services.

Speaking of technical hurdles, DirecTV's call center reps had better be getting primed on the joys of HDCP. I suspect they'll be fielding their fair share of calls from customers who, prior to April 7, had no reason to wonder if their entire signal chain was HDCP 2.2 compliant. The future is here, but for some it will be a bumpy transition. 

Read more about DirecTV's announcements here...