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?]





ComScore June 07 numbers, U.K.

31 07 2007

ComScore reports that 63% of the 15+ population used the internet during June, with an average of 35 hours per user spent online during the month.

Despite clinging to the prized number 1 to 3 rankings, Google,  Microsoft and eBay all lost a modest amount of reach during the month, while Yahoo! showed growth of just 1%. But the fastest growth of all came from Mozilla, which released an update to its Firefox broswer during June.

Of U.K. broadcasters, Channel 4 put in a strong performance with unique visits climbing 39%, believed to be as a result of online viewing of the latest iteration of Big Brother; the second biggest gain for any U.K. web property for the period reported.





Microsoft to enhance Zune product, delays in Europe

29 07 2007

Microsoft is to release its next-gen Zune portable media player before Christmas, according to this report. Significantly, Microsoft is aiming for parity with iPod by adding podcast and video features.

In a related report, paidContent.org says that a European launch has been delayed, owing to difficulty in signing content agreements. It adds that one million units of the device have been sold since it was launched eight months ago.





Microsoft’s ploy to catch-up with the social nets

27 07 2007

Microsoft was a pioneer when it came to bringing instant messaging into the mainstream, arguably the forerunner to today’s social nets phenomenon. But its MSN portal today looks as if it should be a curiosity unearthed on the Antiques Roadshow. Not for long, if you take at face value comments from Todd Herman, MSN’s director of advertising and biz dev, in this interview.

The piece is peppered with some great observations, such as how NBC’s use of short-form video on the web is attracting viewers who might otherwise shun TV news and “out Tivoing TiVo”, as well as Microsoft’s ‘Project Warhol’, aiming to bring more consumer-generated content to the MSN site. Still, the interview is more than a year old and we’re yet to witness significant delivery against Warhol, an initiative Microsoft have thus far been uncharacteristically enigmatic about.





Entertainment 2.0 and the communication divide

24 07 2007

Reuters via CNet reports on new research commissioned by Microsoft and MTV Networks, revealing that young people don’t stop to think about use of technology, it’s just an integral part of their lives. Less surprising is that industry buzz terms such as “social networking” were recognised by only 16% of those polled. The other key finding was that young consumers are less focused on the technology itself, but more what it enables (eg accessing content for free and “download to burn”). Time for the industry to start thinking about a new way of communicating these benefits, in a language which consumers understand.





Euro Xbox VOD: update

18 07 2007

Rollout of the Xbox Live Marketplace VOD service for European countries will be staggered, according to this report. “It’s going to be a country at a time. We’re going to have to get it right for each country; the rights, as well as the operation and localisation for each country,” said Xbox Live general manager JJ Richards.

“That will be our implementation rollout. So rather than hold everybody up we’d rather turn on France when we get enough French content and French rights, we’ll turn on the UK when we get UK, we’ll turn on Italy when we get Italy,” he added.





3 Out of 4 U.S. Internet Users Streamed Video Online in May

18 07 2007

ComScore’s latest data, released yesterday, states that 74.3% of US internet users watched streamed video online, during May, with each user watching an average of 158 minutes of content; over a third of these (35%) via YouTube.

Numbers are aggregated across Google sites, collectively accounting for 49.2% streaming video market share, followed by Fox (40%), Yahoo (26.6%), TimeWarner (22.3%) , Microsoft (18.5%) and Viacom (14.7%). Both ABC and Disney — curiously split out in a study which otherwise aggregates across the network sites — languishing at < 10%.





Were content owners right to open the online stable door?

17 07 2007

Barely a day after the 25th anniversary of the computer virus comes news that the BBC’s iPlayer, or at least the Microsoft-supplied DRM solution it has chosen to use (probably the most robust, widely available one out there) has been hacked. Hardly a surprise that something produced by Microsoft (or anyone else) has, but more worry for the BBC just 10 days ahead of its public launch of the iPlayer product.

The BBC has been characteristically stalwart and low-key its response: no official release on its press office site, but clearly a line against enquiry: problem, what problem? The iPlayer launch will go on.

DRM was made to be broken. Organisations like the BBC have already gone on the record about how its model is better lent to a world without restrictions, but given that it isn’t the sole owner of all rights invested in any production, this won’t fly (yet).

Many question why an organisation like the BBC, with its unique market position, isn’t being braver about a tougher stance on this right now. The answer? It wants to make available the broadest possible content… now. It’s taken years for EMI to wake-up to the fact that DRM-free content via iTunes is possibly a bigger business opportunity; the music biz is years ahead of the curve in this respect.

Content licensors are right in their assertion that both they and the talent they represent should be justly rewarded for their efforts. It’s something that Hollywood talent unions are still wrestling with, with no easy solution ahead for either side in the negotiation.

The problem remains: everyone wants to own consumers, while consumers don’t particulary want to be owned. Time to dust off the business models (cue: social networks), appreciate we live in a plurocracy, but simultaneously devise profit-driven ideas which sit comfortably. True convergence can’t happen without it.





Xbox Live Marketplace: content update

11 07 2007

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Disney is to offer movies on a download-to-rent basis via Microsoft’s Xbox Live Marketplace service (see also), including titles from its Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures and Miramax Films studios.

“We’re always looking for more ways to let people experience our films,” said Dan Cohen, executive vice president of pay television and interactive media for Disney-ABC Domestic Television, in the announcement. “With the millions of Xbox 360 consoles in living rooms today with a direct, high-speed Internet connection, Xbox LIVE really has become a terrific device for the delivery of digital entertainment content.”

Microsoft has revealed that in the seven months since the service launched, nearly 10 million movies and TV shows have been downloaded via the service, which now features 2,350 hours of “premium entertainment content” from  15 partners.

The VOD service is currently exclusive to the US market, Xbox users in Europe and Canada can expect it to be introduced by the end of this year.





MSN sets a new online video record

8 07 2007

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MSN has disclosed that it had served 10 million video streams by 15oo hrs eastern during yesterday’s Live Earth event, yielding “the most simultaneous viewers of any online concert ever”. I’ll update this post should consolidated figures emerge. This compares with around 5 million unique accessing AOL video streams of Live 8 in 2005, peaking at 175,000 simultaneous video streams; while the BBC’s World Cup streams attracted 1.7 million requests for live games.





Microsoft brings you… live television

8 07 2007

Interesting post from Erick Schonfeld, Microsoft Research and UK company Skinkers are testing p2p software called LiveStation for streaming live television to PCs (a Mac version is also being developed) using Microsoft Silverlight. The technology was first unveiled at NAB in April and is due for full release in October.  There’s nothing particularly new about streaming live TV over the web: in the UK Channel 4 already simulcasts a proportion of its primary network schedule via the 4oD service; ITV is working on similar plans for ITV Broadband; the BBC began live simulcasting of its News 24 network in May; last week Zattoo announced the launch of a UK localised version of its service (which re-transmits TV channels with a 1-second delay); whilst this is something JumpTV has been doing for a while.  But using p2p as a means for live streaming is a more efficient means of distribution bandwidth-greedy TV. Microsoft, Skinkers and any broadcaster partners they eventually sign up will need to do much to educate ISPs on the benefits of this technology, given that regular access to it by an end user on a fixed cap broadband plan will likely result in additional usage charges.

Here’s an interview with Matteo Berlucchi, CEO and co-founder of Skinkers, plus some coverage on arstechnica.





VOD a fillip for Xbox Live

5 07 2007

Good to see more content providers experimenting with reaching young audiences who may prefer to watch movies or TV via a games console, as profiled in this NY Times piece.

Xbox Live marketplace

The Xbox Live Marketplace offers around 2,000 hours of downloadable content: a mix of download-to-own, download-to-rent (US $2 to $6 for a 24-hr viewing window) and free. contentonce downloaded, can be viewed for up to 24 hours. There’s some HD content, as well as exclusive stuff: a premiere episode of South Park was downloaded 400K times, when offered.

Among Microsoft’s content partners on the service are Paramount Pictures, New Line, Warner Bros., MTV, CBS, A&E and ABC.

“It’s where entertainment delivery is headed,” says Anita Frazier of industry analysts NPD Group. “It’s a natural evolution for any of these boxes, whether it’s a computer or an Xbox or a PlayStation 3 or Apple TV to deliver a variety of content and whether it’s games or music or TV or movies,” she adds. 

Most interesting of all, Microsoft cites “double digit” growth of VOD revenues from the service, every month since introduced.