Rants n Raves – What ever happened to the Smart Box?

Years ago I read an article about the Smart Box that would soon be in every home and would revolutionize how we receive our television, telephone, music, games and movies.  It would be a single conduit into the home and would deliver all the services throughout the home, with no wires. The discussion at the time was who would bring this to your home – telcos, cable companies, satellite companies, maybe even municipalities or local power companies. The technology was already there and companies like Shaw were promoting “fiber to every home” to provide the highest possible speeds. What happened to this vision?

All we have today, years later, is network executives, content producers, cable and phone company executives, software and hardware companies – everyone involved in the entertainment industry, all squabbling for control, protecting their own turf.  Companies like Netflix, one of the only ones actually partly responding to what consumers want, true “on demand” services, then creating a backlash from traditional cable companies who impose ridiculous and unjustified bandwidth caps to stop people from using Netflix, or at least making it much more expensive than the $8 a month Netflix charges. There is no reason for this other than good old greed.

While Netflix does represent a solid concept – delivering on demand movies and series television from a well designed user menu interface, easy connectivity and fast streaming speeds, with the ability to pause. The service is limited to a single user on a single device, such as a WII. The downside of the service is that it is currently offering only older movies and series television, with no current TV offerings or recent movie releases. Compared to pay per view movies and cable on demand services, which typically charge upwards of $5.99 per movie, Netflix, at $8 per month is extremely economical. Even with a limited library consumers will likely maintain the service just to have it when they feel like watching something different or nostalgic.

Although I may not be typical, partly because I am not working right now, plus I am alone, I am still a consumer of entertainment, in some ways even more in need. As a job searcher my internet connection is vital as I spend a great deal of the day on the internet. As cloud computing becomes more and more the norm (some 40 million people use it today) a reliable and safe connection becomes more and more critical. It is equally important that the ability to move seamlessly between various devices is possible. Although I also have a cell phone, my plan is for unlimited incoming calls and text, not for making calls. For that I use my free Google Call Phone feature, which, albeit incredibly rudimentary with no features such as contacts, offers crystal clear voice call quality and ease of use. It could only be better for me if I weren’t tied to my laptop headset and could use a Bluetooth ear bud and get the same call quality.

My Television is an old non HD set (why is it a “set?” Set of what?) so receiving HD broadcast or movies isn’t critical, but this will soon be the norm. Until today I have been with Rogers, but the costs have been outrageous and I can no longer afford to have their service. A decent internet connection and a minimal television package was over a hundred dollars a month, not something I can possibly afford. Having been in the industry with Shaw Fiberlink, I know that the costs of laying fiber have gone down drastically, so it’s fair to assume that most parts of the civilized world have been connected with fiber, so bandwidth is not an issue, except to print money. The cable companies have shown they are vultures here, putting “caps” on bandwidth, trying to convince us that it costs more to provide more. It’s a bad joke. It’s like the case of Bell Canada charging a customer some fifteen thousand dollars for a few dollars of cell phone service. These companies are today’s robber barons and they must be stopped.

Just as bad as the cable companies are the content producers and networks, all of whom are acting like kids in a sandbox. Hard to believe these are high-priced adults when you see what they try to pull every day. They want the only football to be theirs and to threaten to take it home when they don’t get their way. There’s so much concentration of ownership and infighting, trying to protect their content from being widely distributed without being able to gouge everyone. Think for a second about movies. Talented artsy people come up with concepts for a movie. Producers then convince investors to put money up for production, hoping the movie will be successful and they will get a return on their investment. Theatres book the movie trusting that people will lay down their hard earned money to watch the movie. Everyone then hopes that people will enjoy the movie and then tell everyone to go and see it. The movie makes millions and everyone is happy. Okay, so at what point in this distribution chain did someone restrict access or charge exorbitant monthly fees or demand a guaranteed return, regardless of whether the movie was any good? No, it succeeded or failed based on merit, pure and simple. Why isn’t TV like this?

The Smart Box model is still a subscription based model, but it allows for full customization of what consumers want. No forced theme packages chosen by someone who has no clue what you like. You are presented a list of all “channels”, movie services, games, and internet. You select exactly what you want and then you receive a firm price back, both a monthly cost and a per use cost.  The monthly cost would be similar to an iTunes model, where you would pay reasonable charges for things like “network” channels and “specialty” channels, interactive games and movie models similar to Netflix, which basically grants access to a library of older titles. Just like Netflix, the program would start to learn what you like and make recommendations to you.

The hardware part of the Smart Box is that is establishes an in-home wireless network for all devices, from desktop computers to smart phones, each with its own unique address. This same box might also deal with things like home security, appliances, lighting and HVAC. Here I’m dealing with the delivery of home entertainment.

The first concept is similar to a Netflix streaming service, but it deals with what’s been referred to as “television”. We’ll now call it “broadcast” for clarity. The menu on each device first asks for a selection, such as Broadcast, Movies or Games. Selecting Broadcast then brings up what looks like the menu you see at tvguide.ca, but the times shown are not when the program is “airing” but rather when you want to schedule it. You start with the local news and the choices are “live” or “delay” with a time to watch. You can then either continue with “live” or program your evening, selecting the appropriate times. Similar to the way cable services allow you to set reminders, the program would warn of program overlaps, although this applies only to “live” selections. Even with “live” selections you can  pause or rewind if you missed something, or select “record for later” if you are interrupted.

The other change is that all “live” programs are interactive, including the commercials. You can open a chat window and interact with other live viewers to comment on the show, similar to what you can do watching online content or playing interactive games. The interactive part of the commercials would allow viewers to do things like rate the commercial, the product; request buying coupons (downloaded to print) or comment on using the product, all of which would prove invaluable to advertisers. People might request a coupon to be delivered to their smart phone the next time they are at the Retailer, for example.

Movies and games would function as per current models, such as Netflix and Playstation. The monthly charge for a movie subscription would allow customization similar to a Windows Media Gallery library, with selections by genre, actor, or release date. For example there would be a children’s library, a foreign films library and so on. The base rate, such as the current $8 a month would grant access to older content as it does on Netflix now. With the demise of Blockbuster there would be an upgraded service which would offer movies the day they are released. This might be in the area of $29 per month, which makes for economical viewing for all members of the family. Games would be charged on a similar scale. First run movies, that is those that are opening in theatres, would be available on a per movie basis, charged at a premium, but not as outrageous as it might cost to take a family of four to the theatre.   Maybe something in the order of $12-14 would allow a family to watch the movie on their big screen TV and provide their own refreshments without the insane costs of the theatre for popcorn and drinks. Theatres will not go the way of Blockbuster because the huge screens and sound systems will still be a huge draw for many, plus the development of 3D and things like IMAX, which will never replicate properly at home.

Because all of this is based on connecting to the internet, having the option to access all of the features of the web on the “Entertainment Devices” is obvious. Everything is about interactivity, from chatting with fans of a broadcast show, to tweeting the stars of the show, to rating the show for the producers.

Instead of competing in the market for things like 3D, manufacturers would instead compete on design and integration, such as full integration between cell phones, tablets, laptops, PCs and HD TV.

The Smart Box – what you want, when you want it, where you want it – everywhere.

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