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Life Without Comcast: An Update

Life Without ComcastI’ve been remiss in not updating you on my experiment in using an Apple TV with Boxee’s media-center software as a substitute for my pricey Comcast service. “Life Without Comcast” may be a misleading title, since I haven’t tried to go cold turkey–instead, I’ve done some of my TV watching via cable, and some via the Internet, and have been comparing the two experiences as I did so.

So far, my main conclusion is that these two ways to consume video content are just…different. To wit:

Pro-Comcast Points:

Cable isn’t a victim of the Hulu-Boxee debacle. The single thing that played the biggest role in making my Apple TV/Boxee setup a plausible Comcast substitute was the fact that it let my watch Hulu, the Web’s leading source of broadcast TV programming. Last week, however, Hulu reluctantly asked Boxee to remove its Hulu support, and Boxee complied. End result: A lot of mainstay cable TV programming is no longer available on Boxee. True, it still has Joost, CBS, and other content providers, and Apple TV offers a wealth of for-pay movies and TV shows (as well as some stuff for free, in podcast form). But if I’d known that I wouldn’t be able to view Hulu on my TV, I would have been a lot less gung-ho about this whole experiment.

Cable is still a must for news junkies. Live streaming of broadcast news coverage over the Internet is rare, and often iffy when it does occur. Podcasts are available of some shows, but they’re always delayed, and often cut down. So I’m still doing much of my consuming of news via various all-news channels. And when major stories break, I still want the option of turning on the TV and surfing the coverage on multiple stations.

Cable is a heck of a lot closer to being glitch-free. Most means of watching video across the Internet are subject to at least occasional hiccups, and some are crippled by technical problems–especially when wireless networking is involved. Even Netflix’s slick and appealing Watch Instantly service has its issues: I tried to watch Network via it on my TiVo HD (see below) last night, and the soundtrack was out of sync with the image by about three seconds. With cable, I can be reasonably confident that the stuff I want to watch will work–and keep working until I’m done watching it.

HD is cool. And while I can get some HD content on Apple TV, it’s still a relative rarity. (Blocky YouTube-like video, on the other hand, is in plentiful supply.) When I want to watch high-def, Comcast has far more to offer.

Anti-Comcast points:

Financially, cable is woefully inefficient. At least for someone like me who doesn’t really gorge on TV. For every hour of cable programming I watch and enjoy, I’m paying for hundreds of stations of absolutely zero interest to me. (Sorry, Fox Soccer Channel, MTV Jams, ZeeTV, and Sprout.) The movies and TV shows that Apple delivers through Apple TV aren’t free, but they’re all a la carte.

Cable has a short attention span. Yesterday, I set up a TiVo HD, a few months after my beloved old standard-def TiVo more or less croaked on me. As part of get it up and running, I had to program it to record stuff I like–and I was startled by how many of the old sitcoms I dig are no longer available on cable. Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, and Bob Newhart are off the air…but they’re all on Hulu. And even if I can’t watch them on my Apple TV anymore, they’re available on my laptop.

Cable is available in one place. On the TV in my living room–unless I pay for extra set-top boxes. Or use a Slingbox (which, full disclosure, I do) to put it elsewhere. All the Internet TV I can get on Boxee is also available on all of my computers. Some of it’s on my iPhone, too, and over time I’m sure that all of it will be phone-friendly.

Cable is tied to a schedule. Yes, Comcast offers some shows and movies via its OnDemand video-on-demand service, and you can rent a Comcast DVR or buy something like a TiVo to watch your favorite stuff at any time. But you’re still going to miss some stuff you wanted to see because you forgot about it, or were busy when it was on. On the Web, by contrast, the default state of video programming is on demand: You can watch the last episode of Late Night With Conan O’Brien whenever you feel like it, and even if your DVR hasn’t been set to record Conan since the last millennium.

Bottom line: So far, at least, this little adventure hasn’t left me feeling like I can drop cable without missing it. At least not yet, and not via Boxee in its de-Hulued state. I’m continuing with the experiment, though, and will continue to write about it. You gotta think that Internet TV is going to evolve and improve rapidly over the next year or two, while cable is likely to stay pretty much like it is today.

Oh, and I am considering dropping the Comcast phone service I signed up for when I moved into my new home last summer–but that’s a subject for another post….


Comcast OnDemand Goes Online

ComcastSilicon Alley Insider’s Dan Frommer has posted a worthwhile read on Comcast’s upcoming Internet TV service, which is due later this year. It’s tentatively called OnDemand Online, and it sounds like it’ll be a rough equivalent of the company’s OnDemand cable service, featuring content from cable channels and available only to Comcast subscribers. It’s in addition to the company’s Hulu-like Fancast site, which focuses on free content from broadcast channels.

It’s impossible to think about OnDemand Online without obsessing over this week’s removal of Hulu from Boxee, the software that lets you watch Internet TV on a TV. Some observers wonder if cable companies were behind Hulu’s request that Boxee cease streaming its programming. I have no idea whether Comcast was involved, it would be a bummer to think that the company was trying to pre-empt competition for its new service by strongarming it out of action. Internet-based streaming is going to provide increasingly stiff competition for Comcast and other cable companies over the next few years, and while it makes perfect sense for Comcast to jump into the game, I gnash my teeth at the thought that it could be a fait accompli that it will dominate Internet TV in the same way it dominates cable…


Hulu Gives Boxee the Boot. Thanks, Hollywood!

Life Without ComcastOkay, now this just stinks: Boxee, the cool software that lets you pipe Internet TV and other digital media onto a TV set, is doing away with its support for Hulu, the most significant purveyor of streaming versions of broadcast TV programming. I take the move personally, since I recently bought an Apple TV in large part to run Boxee on it, and in particular to watch Hulu.

But I’m not mad at Boxee (who’s in a tough spot, and whose support for Hulu was unofficial rather than based on a partnership), and I don’t think I’m irked with Hulu, either. The latter company’s blog is explaining that its content providers were ticked off over their stuff being available on Hulu and therefore forced the issue. Minor kudos to Hulu for addressing what’s happening on the blog rather than pretending that it’s not a big deal for Boxee fans.

(Side note: I don’t know whether there’s any connection between this and the news that Ed Oswald reported on earlier today involving Hulu programming disappearing from TV.com.)

The instinctive response, of course, is to start slamming those content providers as clueless Hollywood types who don’t get the Internet and hate their TV-consuming customers. And it is a shame that they’re depriving Boxee users of their stuff: If the whole business model of Hulu involves monetizing TV by supporting it with ads, you’d think that Boxee eyeballs would be just as valuable as any others that watch those ads. Maybe more so, given that anybody who’s an early adopter of Boxee is likely a particularly hardcore TV fan.

Neither Boxee’s nor Hulu’s commentary on this development explains why content owners don’t want their shows on Boxee. My guess is that A) they’re uneasy with having stuff show up in an environment they don’t control; and B) they’re still not comfortable with Internet TV showing up on TV, where it competes more directly with the old-fashioned broadcast incarnations of the same programs. As well-done as Hulu is, I suspect that it’s still a pretty lousy advertising medium compared to prime time. (The Hulu shows I catch, at least, are often supported by public-service messages rather than big-name sponsors.)

Spo short-term, I’m disgruntled over not being able to watch Hulu on Boxee; long-term, my question is this: Do Hulu’s content providers have a problem with Boxee in particular or Hulu-on-a-TV in general? My hope is that Hulu is actively working on other means of bringing its nifty service to the living room; if Hollywood is short-sighted enough to nix that, then by all means let the name-calling begin.

And hey, does anyone want to buy a slightly-used Apple TV?


Boxee Gets ABC

Life Without ComcastMinor confession: I’m not much of a watcher of current episodic network television. So even though I’m trying to do as much of my TV watching via Boxee’s media center software as possible, the fact that Boxee is adding Lost and ABC’s streaming shows to its lineup doesn’t mean much to me personally. I’ll be more psyched when more news and really old shows (What’s My Line, anyone?) are available.

But I’m still pleased by the ABC news: The biggest issue about Internet TV in general and Boxee in specific is that the selection of stuff is extremely scattershot, so the more quickly Boxee adds as much programming as possible, the better. It’ll be fabulous when there’s a way to get convenient access to all major-media streaming TV programming in one place, and it would be nifty if an inventive startup like Boxee got there first.

ABC is available in Boxee’s Mac version now; the company hopes to have it working in the Apple TV version in a few days; Linux and Windows support is in the works.


The New York Times on Boxee

Life Without ComcastI thought I was being weird and bleeding-edge by attempting to dump cable TV for watching sites like Hulu through Boxee’s open-source media center software on an Apple TV. But the New York Times has a nifty story today on Boxee and its fans–and once something’s in the Times, it’s presumably well on its way to going mainstream.The Times says that the Boxee-on-Apple TV software has been downloaded 100,000 times to date, which suggests that I have a lot of company already.

I’ll be writing more about my experiences soon, but my overarching takeaway at the moment is that Internet TV on a TV is, above all, different from cable–better in some respects, and worse than others. Of course, Internet TV is still busy being born–Hulu is less than a year old, and Boxee is still in alpha. Cable TV has a head start of a few decades. But if there’s one thing that undeniable about the Internet, it’s that it can catch up with old ways of doing things really quickly. And then go far beyond them…

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Life Without Comcast: An Experiment in Internet TV

Life Without ComcastMaybe the title of this new Technologizer series is unfair. I don’t despise Comcast, the company who I’ve been paying for cable TV service for the past six months. (Until then, at my old pad, I was a DirecTV man.) But I don’t love it, either–especially the part about paying it a large amount of money each month when I watch maybe .000001% of what it offers.

And oh, did I mention the remote control that came with my Comcast high-def box? Worst piece of technology I use regularly–every time I pick it up, my blood begins to boil a little.

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Boxee Adds Netflix, But Not on AppleTV or Ubuntu

boxee_logoOpen source media center platform Boxee said Thursday that its latest release would add support for Netflix, however only for users of its Mac OS X port. While the company offers both a version for Ubuntu Linux and AppleTV set-top boxes, neither are supported in this initial release.

Boxee says the issue with not being able to offer AppleTV users the functionality has to do with the processing power of the unit, currently at 1GHz. Apparently, the application bogs down, but developers are working on getting that working as soon as possible.

The company says it received a lot of requests for Netflix on Boxee, which provided the impetus to begin discussions with the online rental service. No word on whether the Netflix app would make it into an upcoming Windows version of the service — due out soon — however Linux support seems a bit off.

(Note: this is more due to the fact that Netflix itself does not yet support Linux, although it has said it would do so later next year.)

Netflix is not the only new content to be added: users are also gaining photos from the Boston Globe, music videos from MTV, and content from TheWB.com. Improvements to the content offerings from Hulu, CNN, Flickr and Picasa are also included in the update, as well as quality enhancements for YouTube videos.

Those interested in testing out Boxee should head on over to the company’s website and submit their information.

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