TV app wars are the new mobile phone wars are the new browser wars

App on TVFirst there was the browser wars, when you went to sites that refused to work in your browser due to some arbitrary decision by the developer and success was determined not by competition and features, but by courts in the US and Europe. Now, there is the mobile phone wars, which are equally religious and as such have protagonists equally unable to step back and think about the user rather than their own beliefs when recommending the “best phone”.

Next, there will be the TV app wars. All the major TV manufacturers have started thinking and working on ways to connect your TV to the internet, and enhance your viewing experience by publishing content from both their own portals and content from others such as LoveFilm, YouTube and BBC iPlayer. Panasonic have Smart Viera, Sony have their Internet TVs and Samsung have their “Smart TVs”.

But that’s only pre-market gadgetry, there’s also the post-market kit in the form of set-top boxes and integrated hardware in games consoles. Apple TV aims to extend the now well known and adopted iTunes platform and push its space into the living room. The Sony PS3, Nintendo Wii and Microsoft XBox 360 have all got their own services and ecosystems that extend their software into your everyday life rather than limiting itself gaming.

The problem is the market place is currently fragmented, arbitrary and proprietary. When buying a TV, you are asked to make your purchase decision with regards to internet content (which is a significant domestic purchase) based only on trade relationships between the TV manufacturer and the content provider. Want LoveFilm? Then Panasonic TVs are no good. Want iPlayer? Then Microsoft’s XBox 360 is no good. Buy a Panasonic, which can serve YouTube content, but you already have an XBox 360, which can also serve YouTube content. Now you have duplication. Whereas previously you had multiple players vying for the same market, we now have multiple players vying for converging – but separate – markets. And that provides one key feature to the user: confusion and doubt.

Meanwhile, Samsung have their own application platform. XBox 360 has just launched (or rather re-launched in a more obvious format) its own app marketplace. So you have a YouTube app for your Samsung TV, your XBox 360 and your Android phone. I guess you never can get enough of cat videos, no matter where you are. These application marketplaces are fundamentally incompatible. Your app from Microsoft will not work on your Android phone, or even its own Windows Phone 7 line. Features are also dependent on trade relationships. LoveFilm only recently launched on XBox 360 despite being available on “selected” TVs and the PS3, and BBC content was taken out of Windows Media Centre for some reason while the XBox 360 is the only console that it continues to be unavailable for – based only on the BBC’s stance that the content should not be confined to users with a paid XBox Live subscription. I struggle to see their logic. TV License holders have paid for the content, but I have also paid for Apple users to have their content, too. Such grandstanding is inconsequential to Microsoft, but the user is given a second-rate experience.

There is hope. Ubuntu TV is hoping to launch and gain ground in TVs, which could create a more open marketplace using an established operating environment. Windows 8 and Windows Phone 7 will ultimately converge so could conceivably execute the same code. Download it for your phone, and you have it on your PC. And with rumours of a Microsoft set-top-box in addition to the XBox 360, the same execution environment is possible (think WinRT/Silverlight and HTML5/JavaScript). Like your smartphone, it depends to a large extent on your ecosystem at home. And if your ecosystem doesn’t fit the trade relations content providers have made, tough luck.

LOVEFiLM? Then maybe LOVEFiLM isn’t what you need.

I’ve been a LOVEFiLM subscriber for a couple of years now, having started with the Amazon service model. I’ve been largely pleased with the service. The staff are helpful on the phone, the disks are usually reliable and the various packages are simple to understand and manage. The catalogue is incredibly decent, too.

But their distribution model is dated. We live in the internet age of instant gratification and preferably within 140 characters. So posting disks out, while good value and useful, doesn’t always address the question, “what shall we watch tonight?”. Which is why I was very pleased when they launched their online streaming service. Finally, I can go over and above my allocated disk and have more choice as and when I need. Having tried Zune Video, with its flawless HD streaming and fairly impressive catalogue coupled with integration with my existing media system, I was expecting great things.

However, they chose to stream over a web browser in the first instance, which is not compatible with my own viewing intentions. From reports, the quality wasn’t anything to write home about, either, often below DVD quality. Integration into consumer devices was a no-brainer, and that dutifully came in Sony and Samsung TVs and the PlayStation 3. At this point, I saw red, as I felt I was excluded based on my choice of a Microsoft eco-system.

The recent 2011 Dashboard update has changed that, however. Finally, I have LOVEFiLM where I want it and can stream films when I want them. Brilliant. Or so I thought. I tried it out last night …

Firstly, the user interface is uninspiring. The Metro UX is beautiful and while they have used the Metro UX, the feel of the application feels flat and while I appreciate the colours are reflecting the brand, they do contribute to an unexciting experience. Additionally, the combination of red text on dark grey produces a difficult to read font, particularly with the Segoe font used in the Metro UX. Transitions between screens and pages is not flowing, and certainly should reflect the experience in the core dashboard making the transition between interfaces less jarring. If you’re using the Metro UX, you need it ALL.

While navigation between film collections was simple enough, I was disappointed with the number of titles available. While the Zune catalogue is limited, I thought it was the lesser force in terms of number of titles. How wrong I was. I was very much looking forward to a sizable proportion of the offline catalogue being available.

My package gives me 2 hours of online viewing. So I had to find a film that was less than 2 hours. Unfortunately, this is not easy as you have to go into each title to see how long the film is to see if you could watch it. Hardly a thoughtful user experience. I found Supersize Me, a documentary that looked to be interesting and has received positive feedback. Unfortunately, it ran to 124 minutes, 4 minutes over my allocation. “That’s okay, the last 4 minutes will be the credits.” Maybe I’d be warned about missing the last 4 minutes? No. I was not allowed to watch the film, so removing my choice of losing those 4 minutes. Which raises the question, if I can’t make conscious decisions like that, and a lot of films run longer than 2 hours, why charge per minute? Surely viewing should be paid per film? If I only have 2 hours on my account, I am already discriminated from viewing a sizeable portion of their catalogue. And, I will ALWAYS have “change”, and therefore unused credits. That doesn’t work in my favour, as the user.

I finally found a film that ran below the 2 hours, and opted for the original Tron film. On selecting it for playing, I got a big fat error “MP1006“. So it seems I wasn’t going to be able to watch Tron. I tried again for good measure, but the same result was received. Maybe there was a problem with that particular title. I opted for another film, “The girl that played with fire”. I could not watch this either, but this time, because I had insufficient minutes left on my account. So in watching – and failing – to watch Tron, I had been debited (stolen from) my minutes allocation, rendering my online service useless for the rest of the month. This aside, what if I thought that film was no good 10 minutes in, do I still lose the entire film minutes? Again, WHY charge in minutes?

So between a flawed charging model (if they’re not allowing rollover minutes and/or portion viewing), plain not working films and stealing my credits I was left underwhelmed, frustrated and finally angry from what could have been a very positive experience. So while I was going to upgrade my account, I’m considering cancelling it (joining the users cancelling due to the switch to Silverlight) and going wholesale into the other video providers on the platform, such as Zune and – heaven forbid – $ky. And with Channels 4, 5 and the BBC introducing content soon, I – the consumer – am going to be spoilt for choice. Oh, and Netflix is coming soon …


Lovefilm have tweeted me back apologising for the problem and have reimbursed me with 100 digital minutes. Which gives me 9 minutes more than my 2 hours! Maybe I’ll be able to watch Supersize Me after all. I’ve asked for feedback on resolution of the original issue before I retry.

Follow up tweets: 1 and 2

Looking forward to gadgets

It’s been a good couple of years for Microsoft in terms of products. After the Vista debacle and Office 2007 ribbon complaints, they’ve really turned a corner. They’ve listened to users of all skill levels to produce some cracking products. Yes, I am a Microsoft shill, but unapologetically so. They are a developer company, and I’m a developer – it’s a natural fit. Windows 7 was sublime, Visual Studio 2010 is “just right” and Office 2010 seems to have finally grown into its new ribbon UI (shame it has only just seen to supporting open data formats such as oData and .ICS).

There’s more to come, though. I’m excited about 2 products in the pipeline.

The first out is Windows Phone 7. What was the Windows Mobile platform suffered from Microsoft’s insistence that they should put the desktop on a mobile phone. Clearly, they were wide of the mark and it is odd it took them so long to realise this. Arrogance, I guess. The only benefit I can see of the iPhone – kicking innovation into what was becoming a stale market. The Windows Phone 7 platform is integrated with Facebook, is developer friendly and offers integration with XBox Live. Oh and Zune finally makes it to the UK – a DRM model that I could just get on with. The hard part is waiting for the right model to be launched – with a keyboard. If you want me to spend anytime with your smart phone, it needs a keyboard. Having seen the reviews and videos of the device, I look forward to that “Oh, that’s very cool” moment. Many phones offer integration with social media and a rich experience, but are scuppered by lack of support for Flash (need I say?), awkward user interfaces (BlackBerry) or under-powered processors (Nokia). Windows Phone 7 seems to be a best alternative to these and offers an open development platform, which is a refreshing change.

The second product is Kinect, formerly “Project Natal”. This has been in gestation for a few years both within Microsoft and in the original product developer, 3DV Systems. Microsoft have struck gold in their XBox Live and Arcade gaming platforms, gaming is now no longer just for the serious gamer. Buy an XBox and you can immediately start playing cheap and highly-playable games from the Arcade and involve the entire family. The so called “casual gamer” represents a serious opportunity and I regard myself in that group as someone who loses interest in games as soon as it gets hard! Even so, with the traditional Control Pad input mechanism, it still feels like a special language is needed to play the games. Kinect removes this barrier, allowing interaction with the games using your body as a controller. In truth, we’ve seen this before, the Playstation Eye Toy was a great product and a smart web cam to boot (if you could locate the drivers for Windows). But that’s not where Kinect is going to stay. Steve Ballmer was reported to (possibly annoying other product departments) say that Kinect is the most significant development for Microsoft this year, maybe because while Kinect is starting out in the home, it will soon become integrated into your Windows and Office experience. Authenticating and controlling Windows suddenly becomes more accessible for the disabled and “regular” user, Office becomes easier to navigate through large spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides, etc. and video conferencing gets better thanks to the directional microphone-array (captions over people’s heads, anyone?).

That’s not to say Microsoft haven’t missed the mark or opportunity on other products, though. The Kin phone was a surprise and seemed to be a typical example of the company competing with itself. Luckily enough, it was canned weeks after but not before a shuffle of senior management. The XBox 360 has recently been redesigned to give it a fresh image in line with the Kinect. The price is attractive, the hard drive bigger and it has wireless – but so what? Still no Blu-Ray player, a real shame as Blu-Ray is starting to get traction – because of the PS3. Sony are giving the same kick to the Blu-Ray market as they did with the DVD market when they included a DVD player in the PS2. Clever – and obvious. And where are the Windows 7 slates? Seems odd considering Windows 7 is touch optimised in so many ways. Maybe (and probably) it is because putting a desktop OS on a battery-powered device is never going to work, surely one of Microsoft’s several embedded OS implementations would suffice? I sometimes feel like I should apologise for the stupidity of Microsoft in its product launches, but I guess when you’re as big as Microsoft, it’s slow to move and competing products within its mass would be inevitable.

UK: Have Microsoft fallen out with us?

The UK is widely regarded as being one of the key countries the drive
innovation in technology. Indeed, the computer was invented in the UK, in
Manchester. Obviously, much of the innovation now occurs in America. With the
signifcantly larger population and economy it provides  natural wealth of
resources for development of products and the eventual testing and purchase of
products. Companies like Microsoft often launch primarily in the US and then
“roll out” across the world. The UK doesn’t tend to fall too far behind in this

Recently, however, we appear to have been given a distinct cold shoulder by

The XBox Dashboard was recently significantly improved, using a
CoverFlow-style interface with a customisable avatar. It looks and works like a
dream. The US also got the benefit of integration of the Netflix service onto
the XBox dashboard. Now, not only does the XBox Video Marketplace allow
downloading of HD-quality films for watching at leisure, using the Netflix
service users can stream HD-movies at any time – no need to wait for the
download to occur. Netflix do not operate in the UK, so we don’t get this. Why
don’t they arrange something with, who offer a similar

The rival MP3 player from Microsoft, Zune, has never been available in the UK
officially. The Zune is intended to compete with the Apple iPod. The iPod is
unfortunately becoming synonymous for this particular technical gadget but there
is so much more to this market than just iPods. Creative and many other vendors
create MP3 players with a wide variety of features. Microsoft were keen not to
get too far behind on this so launched Zune as a means of listening to music,
but the “USP” was the ability to share music with your friends and buy music
wirelessly using the Zune Marketplace. Your Zune ID was the same as your Windows Live ID which is the same as your XBox Live ID, creating a real ecosystem of identity and technologies. Obviously, for Marketplace to exist in the UK, deals would have to be done in the UK which Microsoft don’t seem to be too bothered about. Maybe it is because the market is too small. As the Zune product is
developed, we see the Zune HD now has HD Radio, a technology the UK foolishly
did not adopt, instead we adopted DAB which is poorer quality than FM (in
practice). So they are pushing us further out of the door, reducing the glimmer
of hope that they may just change their minds in the future. The UK is left in
the clutches of Apple.

At the recent E3 Gamers conference, Microsoft announced a number of exciting
new features for the XBox. One of which was the rebranding of the Video
Marketplace which allows the downloading of videos form the XBox servers at a
small fee. This will be rebranded as “Zune Marketplace”. Indeed, the XBox itself
already provides some degree of integration with Zune devices. Where does this
leave the UK? Will we receive this branding and how will it afect us other than
a few colour changes on the XBox dashboard? Again we don’t know where the UK
will stand.

Microsoft Money is being abandoned (Guardian article), due largely to the success of the Quicken product by Intuit. Microsoft have committed to help users migrate to Quicken as part of a programme of future versions. Unfortunately, Intuit abandoned the UK years ago, so where does this leave UK Money users in need of budget accountancy software?

Hulu has been added to the Windows Media Centre, allowing access to their wide variety of video content direct from your PC or Media Centre environment. Hulu is not available anywhere other than the US. Media Centre content such as Extras which can include content direct from channels is also excluded from UK use. We used to have BBC content, but they pulled it when they reviewed their digital content output. Obviously this is not Microsoft’s fault but I think there needs to be
some effort made in replacing and securing new content for UK users.

New XBox 360 Experience – Avatars networking on the cloud

The third post in as many days. I’m not on a roll, there’s just a lot happening.

Microsoft’s successful XBox 360 console received a bit of a makeover last
night, in the form of the much anticipated “New XBox Experience“. Previously,
the XBox user interface when turned on was a series of “blades”, representing
distinct actions and tasks within the console such as playing games, playing
music and videos and making purchases from the various stores. All in all a
functional if uninspiring interface.

The New Xbox Experience was pushed to users last night, in a very impressive
global rollout of the software. This itself must have been a technical
nightmare! The new user interface is very 3D-based, concentrating on “slides”
rather than blades which come in and out of focus (literally). It is very

Where the clever bit comes in is with the use of Avatars. Previously, gamers
were represented in the community by a GamerCard. Much like an ID card, the only really customisable part of it is the icon used for the image.

Avatars are becoming increasingly popular in various applications, so I’m
sure you’ll know that an Avatar is a computer-representation of yourself that
exists in the digital world. Games like Second Life centre around users’
avatars. Whether it is on the XBox 360 console or Facebook. The New XBox 360
Experience invites us to create an avatar to represent us in the XBox 360
environment. Gamers have been playing on line with each other for years, and
forms the hub of major games such as Rock Band, Call of Duty and Halo 3. Gamers
are often required to join up into teams to complete tasks, for example. Where
the New XBox Experience improves things is that your avatar can now appear in
games themselves, reinforcing your digital representation. This idea has been
criticised as a copy of the Nintendo Wii Mii idea, which works on a similar basis. A number of “Party Games” are also going to be launch which allow gamers to participate in “live” games, much like TV gameshows where the gamers’ avatars take part in a digital game occuring – to all intents and purposes – on the “cloud”.

I’m not a gamer, indeed, I actually represent a small part of an increasingly
successful market that gaming companies are targetting – that of the “casual
gamer”. The casual gamer market consists of people who may be 30-something and who enjoy a quick stab at a game to come down after a day at work. Whether they are just wasting time or re-living retro-classics, they can’t afford the
commitment required of the mainstream games such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft
Auto, etc. We still enjoy playing PacMan and Frogger in original blocky graphics
on our expensive HD gaming systems.

The significance of Microsoft’s work hasn’t passed me by, however. The new
user interface re-inforces the community of gamers in the living room. No longer
are fellow gamers hidden behind a subscription-only service, now they appear on
your dashboard using their own avatar representation. You go to them and point
to them to join in a “party”, conversation or compare successes. The concept of
the gaming community is quickly becoming like that of Facebook or MySpace,
allowing social networking to occur in the living room in a safe environment.
Gamers, particularly young gamers, can socialise with their friends using their
console (no complicated PC to configure) in a “sandbox” which comes with
parental controls and a hefty terms of use agreement which is rigorously
enforced. Avatars take this to the next level, and Microsoft promise a number of
other improvements to increase the networking opportunities of gamers.

The YouTube video below shows how the new Avatar system works.

Unfortunately, however, these networks are very vendor-based. Your XBox 360
personality can’t exist in a Wii Mii context, even though it is the same idea
and you and your friend are running the same game, for example, Rock Band. I
guess it’s only like Facebook vs MySpace vs Bebo, but a £160+ investment in a
social network that may or may not include people you get on with is a bit of a
risk. Obviously, you buy the console for the gaming possibilities (amongst
others) but the networking opportunities will form an increasingly more
important aspect of the marketing of the product by the producers and the
selection of the console by the consumer.

The XBox 360 and platforms like it are also becoming a more attractive
purchase for people who don’t play games. As Windows Vista rolls out, more
people are realising that they can watch, record and manage their TV, music and
picture libraries using an XBox 360. XBox 360s can play DVDs, can rent HD video
content from the internet for viewing on HD sets (not requiring the expensive
Blu-Ray player) and form a controlled access point for the internet, and
therefore, the “cloud”. Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform looks very
exciting, coupled with Mesh, Office Live, Windows Live and XBox Live some
seriously cool applications could be developed that bring us away from the
conventional desktop and returns us to the living room for social networking,
video download, etc.