Skinkers second round funding

30 10 2007

Back in July beyondnessofthings reported on Skinkers, a U.K. based company which has been working with Microsoft on a software solution for streaming of live TV. econsultancy reports that the company has just sealed a deal for US $16m (£8m) in second round funding from a consortium led by Acacia Capital Partners. Consortium members include Spark Ventures, which provided $3.5m (£1.7m) in February 2006.

Skinkers will reportedly soon start trialling its LiveStation product with broadcasters





TV nets face up to growing online competition

25 09 2007

Variety reports on the latest online video forecasts produced by market analysts Screen Digest: the U.K. market for online TV will be worth £181 million (US $362 million) by 2011, but growth of the online movies segment is predicted to be slower.

There’s no doubting that across the Pond, the competitive environment is really gaining traction, as observed by the Financial Times: in the two years since that watershed moment when iTunes first started offering download-to-own TV shows from Disney, all of the major networks have scrambled to not only beef up their own sites, but also to broker those all-important third party syndication deals.

In the last week alone, Walt Disney-owned ABC has agreed a deal to syndicate its shows, for free, via AOL. The net joins CBS, which has been aggressively pursuing its own syndication strategy for the past few months, while Hulu.com, the online video aggregator site JV between NBC Universal and NewsCorp. is due to bow next month.

Hopping back over the Pond to the U.K., the BBC, ITV, Channel Four and five all have online catch-up TV services: the BBC offers the broadest range and volume of hours, while ITV and Channel Four are increasingly bolstering their catch-up offers with back catalogue shows. Satellite broadcaster BSkyB is broadening its Anytime service, with different flavours of the catch-up service available both via broadband and Sky+ DVRs; the company’s recent pact with Sony will also see an extension of the service for Playstation PSPs.

The Screen Digest research referenced at the top of this post acknowledges that established players such as TV networks also face competition from non-traditional market entrants, such as Joost and iTunes. Significantly, it may be players such as Apple and Microsoft, which stand to gain the most if they can finesse their strategies to leverage consumer relationships through ownership of devices, such as iPods, or the world’s most uniquitous operating system.

Four predictions of my own:

  1. The last year or so has merely been about positioning and trying to establish which online video offers work, and which don’t. Note CBS is moving beyond merely offering full-length TV shows online and gradually ramping up 2.0 functionality: conversational content. 2008 will see the space grow up considerably. 
  2. Whether it’s aggregators or TV networks’ own sites, online video offers are principally restricted to ‘walled gardens’ of content, usually from the operating network or a select few content partners. This is wholly alien to the TV viewing experience: consumers don’t watch shows from a single network or producer. The walled garden approach smacks of protectionism and, over the fuller term, it won’t last for all but the smallest handful of players. The creation of Hulu.com is the first acknowledgement by two major players that hybrid partnerships such as thes, which broaden out the available content offer, are the way to go. YouTube is further evidence of a successful broad-brush aggregation model – albeit with some copyright complications.
  3. The market is already overcrowded: come further shocks to the world’s stock markets (an inevitability), watch the venture capital evaporate. Incumbent players looking to second or third round financing, against a backdrop of unproven business models (let alone profit) will shutter or consolidate. Viacom had better be hoping that it can pick up the assets of Joost for a song.
  4. Apple TV and Microsoft Media Center are the first two examples of mainstream PC/TV convergence: but neither has yet created a compelling enough content offer nor low enough price points to give the products a reasonable run at setting the market alight, beyond early adopters. Next gen games consoles from Sony and Microsoft will up the ante by gradually bolstering their IP-delivered VOD offers, but even these may struggle to break through beyond gaming loyalists. Either some boffin will come up with the cheapest and most elegant plug-and-play convergence-enabler – witness what Freeview set-tops did for the U.K. market – or new product categories, such as networked DVD player / recorders or DVRs will hit that magic tipping point of attractive pricing and mainline retail distribution.




Could Microsoft save Netflix?

12 08 2007

Rick Aristotle Munarriz speculates on some strategies for turning around beleaguered Netflix, in this column over on Motley Fool: the company should be sold to either Amazon or Microsoft.

More interesting still, some toplines on the addressable universe offered by each potential suitor:

  • 4.3 million TiVo owners can now access the Amazon Unbox online video service.
  • While Microsoft offers a customer base of 7 million active registered users via its Xbox Live service; with 10 million expected by next summer.




Microsoft and BT to offer IPTV via Xbox in U.K.

10 08 2007

BT Vision customers who also own a Xbox will be able to access the subscription IPTV service before the end of the year, report 360gamer.

Microsoft already provides the software powering the BT Vision service: a DVR-enabled Freeview set-top box with VOD delivered via IP.

The service launched at the end of 2006 and, despite a broadening content offer , has struggled to significantly grow its customer base, which stood at 20,000 households last month. The company hopes that last month’s launch of BT Vision Sport, a near-live catch service offering Premiership football, will accelerate take-up. In its coverage, The Independent states that BT is connecting new customers to the Vision service at the rate of 2,500 per week, a trend which, if maintained, will see the customer base grow to 80,000 households by the end of 2007.

The pairing of BT Vision with Microsoft Xbox is a filip for both companies: BT is able to extend the appeal of its service to game players, while Microsoft gets an off-the-shelf solution for video content on its consoles in the U.K., an area with which it has encountered difficulties, resulting in delays to the European VOD offer for Xbox Live Marketplace.





More iPlayer flack for a beleaguered BBC

2 08 2007

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Poor old Auntie, it’s already suffered a bit of a drubbing in the blogosphere following the beta release of its iPlayer internet catch-up service. Among the critics are those insisting that the BBC should immediately make available versions of the service compatible with Apple Mac and Linux operating systems — a relatively small, but very vocal and media-savvy bunch [is it mere coincidence that many Apple Mac owners also happen to work in media and entertainment industry-related jobs?].

A 10 Downing Street petition aiming to press the point has already garnered over 14,000 e-signatures [at time of posting], with a spike in new ones since all of the blog chatter increased during the last fortnight.

Now, the Free Software Foundation, a group “dedicated to promoting computer users’ rights to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs” is to take its latest campaign offline and protest the BBC’s offices in London and Manchester on 14 August.

The group claims the BBC’s appointment of senior manager Erik Huggers, formerly a director at Microsoft’s Windows digital media division, is as good as saying that the Beeb is in bed with Bill Gates.

Somehow, I don’t make the connection (at least not to the extent of the conspiracy theory purportedly playing out).

It’s akin to claiming that another large organisation hiring an ex-Enron employee to a senior role would mean that hire would act illegally.

So the BBC is aiming to future-proof its services by poaching expertise from a blue chip technology company; just as every other major operator in the content space is. Are there not other ex-Microsoft employees working in other senior roles at other organisations? 

Returning to the BBC iPlayer: which other broadcaster or other online video provider has been forced to provide Mac and Linux versions from day one? So the organisation is funded by everyone with a TV in the U.K. and is mandated to be platform agnostic.

But at which precise moment in time has the BBC made a statement saying it wasn’t working on versions of the iPlayer software suitable for other operating systems?

Hopefully the BBC’s new governance unit the BBC Trust won’t be scared into any knee-jerk response — it has, after all, been open season on BBC-bashing during all of the recent ‘faking it’ scandals which, in fairness, have been exposed across the U.K. broadcasting industry and not just at Auntie.

There’s a faint whiff of some opportunistic BBC-bashing by a handful of individuals who should get out some more. Flame away, but this same tiny constituency is wrongfully distorting the truth. Why not focus your activity on something far more pressing? [see post immediately above].





Online video copyright: the techies fight back

2 08 2007

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Major content owners have been deceiving the public when it comes to the accuracy of statements about copyright [at least this time its not the content itself!!], states a complaint lodged yeserday with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission by The Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), a lobby group representing Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! among others.

The complaint argues that content owners have been abusing their market dominance by using copyright warnings “not to educate their consumers, but to intimidate them.” It alleges that named parties have been pursuing “a nationwide pattern of unfair and deceptive trade practices by misrepresenting consumer rights under copyright law,  In some cases, copyright holders threaten criminal and civil penalties against consumers who choose to exercise Constitutionally guaranteed rights.”

The group singles out Major League Baseball, the National Football League, NBC/Universal, DreamWorks, Harcourt Inc. and Penguin Group as the prime offenders. In its coverage, the Wall Street Journal notes “The conflict illustrates the shifting concept of fair use in the digital age. “Fair use” of intellectual property revolves around the question of how much, if any, of movies, books, music and other creations can be used without permission of the owners. As Internet platforms have made it easier to redistribute chunks of content without asking for approval, copyright owners have become more protective about enforcing their rights.”

Examples of ‘misleading’ copyright warnings, usually pre-roll on DVDs and online video:

— NFL telecast: “. . . . Any other use of this telecast or any pictures,
descriptions or accounts of the game without the NFL’s consent is
prohibited.”

  — MLB telecast: “. . . the accounts and descriptions of this game may not
be disseminated, without express written consent.”

  —  Harcourt Inc. book: “No part of this publication may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including
photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system,
without permission in writing. . . .”   

The CCIA has also launched ‘Defend Fair Use’, a campaign which aims to make “big content come clean”.





Microsoft and Google future TV patents

1 08 2007

ars technica reports on a couple of recent patent applications from Microsoft and Google, covering targeted TV advertising and corresponding web content respectively.

The Microsoft patent would use information about an individual’s preferences to deliver behaviourally-targeted commercials on-the-fly. [Eek] It goes further… Information would also be cross-referenced with a user’s online address book, calendar, purchasing history etc. to deliver a more personalised experience.

Meanwhile the Google patent outlines a system that would record ambient noise from a television while the viewer is watching, pick up relevant tidbits that the viewer might be interested in, and either pull up pages or generate them on the fly for the viewer to check out. One example given in the patent describes a viewer watching Friends who may want to gossip with others online about Monica’s pregnancy. That person would typically have to go to the computer, perform a Google search for “Friends,” then sift through the results to find a discussion forum of some sort. This, Google says, “would diminish the passive experience offered by mass media.”

Instead, the system would listen to what is being played on the TV, compare it against a database of previously-generated audio fingerprints, and automatically pull up the relevant web pages for the viewer. It could even put together dynamically-generated pages with various things like news stories, discussion boards, and social networks based on the content being viewed.

Ominously, both technologies rely on a sort of camera being mounted on or near the TV screen, to detect facial characteristics of whoever is viewing [how will they persuade anyone to install one of these?]