Getting online video content off the small screens in people's bedrooms and studies and onto the big screens in their lounges is a nut that a whole bunch of big media companies have been spending a lot of time and money trying to crack.
Microsoft was one of the first out of the blocks with Windows XP Media Center, launched way back in October 2004. More than two years on and Bill Gates' dream of a Media Center PC under every TV is still just that, a dream. Put simply, not enough people were willing to shell out for a dedicated media hub to sit in their front room. Whilst the integration of Windows Media Center into Vista (Premium and Ultimate editions) will massively increase the number of Media Center PCs in the market, most of them will be sat on a desk rather than beneath a TV screen.
Apple took a different approach, bundling Front Row with all Macs from October 2005 onwards but waiting until January 2007 to finally bridge the PC/TV gap by launching a set top box (cunningly named Apple TV) capable of wirelessly streaming video (and audio) from your computer to your television. The obvious shortcoming of Apple TV (apart from the fact that it's still not shipping) is that it only works with iTunes.
So, if Windows Media Center and Apple TV aren't yet delivering online video to people's television sets in serious numbers, what is? The answer is the latest generation of game consoles, which are increasingly looking like the trojan horse of the digital home, delivering so much more than small Italian plumbers and hyperactive blue hedgehogs.
One such trojan horse is Nintendo's Wii, which, having sold 4.5 million units in its first three months of launch, is now the fastest-selling console in history. The launch of a (free) Wii-specific beta version of the Opera web browser (a.k.a. Internet Channel) last December turned those 4.5 million Wii's into potential conduits for online video. Whilst the browser can successfully render most webpages, it wasn't long before sites specially designed for the Wii began appearing. Below is a quick compendium of some of the best Wii-specific sites for accessing online video and music.
What's noticeable about these sites is how well designed many of the interfaces are. The limitations of the Wii controller and the likely distance of the user from the screen have forced the designers to come up with bold, simple interfaces which in many cases outshine their web-based cousins (compare the FineTune Wii Player with the regular FineTune site).
Wii video sites
As the name suggests, MiiTube is specially designed for watching YouTube videos on your Wii. The homepage pulls in YouTube's 'featured videos' and there are separate pages for 'recently added', 'top favourites' and a selection of 'most viewed' charts (i.e. daily, weekly, all time) plus a 'viral chart'. For a site whose USP is accessibility on the Wii, some of the text could do with being a bit larger and there's no option to increase the video size (which you can do on the regular YouTube site).
Another Wii-friendly window on YouTube, with an infinitely swisher interface, WiiToob's homepage is dominated by a dynamically updating list of recently viewed videos, an alarming proportion of which are not suitable for the office. You're better off heading straight to the 'most viewed' or 'most discussed' lists. Giant font sizes and a visual style which successfully apes Nintendo make WiiToob a joy to navigate.
RedKawa certainly thought outside the box when developing the interface for SofaTube, using search rather than lists as the main mechanism for finding videos and deciding to present the featured videos as a jumble of Polaroid-style tiles which can be dragged, dropped and bought to the front. It's a neat idea which almost works but ultimately feels a bit gimmicky.
SofaTube's key differentiator from MiiTube and WiiToob is that it indexes videos from Revver as well as YouTube (although you can't search the two together and I wasn't actually able to get the Revver videos to play). Another niggle is that the search results don't fit on the screen (horizontally or vertically) which feels frustrating when the site has just accurately detected what browser I'm using.
An innovative approach let down by poor implementation.
Wii music sites
FineTune Wii Player
The FineTune Wii Player is a big-button version of the Pandora-esque online music service, FineTune (reviewed on this blog a few weeks back), offering streamed playlists/radio stations themed around artist or tag. It boasts a gorgeous interface and enables you to log on to your online profile to access your saved playlists, artists and tags.
Besides a pun-tastic name, WiiHear offers genre-based streaming radio stations (85 stations across 15 different genres at the time of writing) and supports the three 'R's of Web 2.0 sites (reviews, ratings and recommendations). The interface isn't a polished as FineTune's with too much small text, although there are a few nice touches, such as the 'past tracks played' lists which accompany every station.
The number of Wii-specific video and music sites is sure to mushroom over the coming weeks and months (keep an eye on Wiidesigned.com) and will no doubt soon be joined by an array of sites tailored specially for Sony's PS3 (which launches in the UK on March 23rd and features a built-in browser). Opera has also indicated that Wii web widgets are on the cards, which could be very interesting.
As suggested in my earlier post on key technology trends for 2007, the converged digital media hub is arriving by stealth. The next trojan horse looks likely to be the set-top box, which are getting smarter and more connected by the day.
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Sunday, February 18, 2007
It's not every day you buy a tree in the middle of the Sahara desert, but that's just what I've done today over at Tree-Nation, a new ecological project which aims to plant 8 million trees in Niger (the poorest country in the world according to the Human Development Index) to combat desertification and land degradation.
Endorsed by the UN's Billion Tree Campaign, the site is very much a Web 2.0 affair, with an isometric cartoon map you can drag around (à la Google Maps) to find a vacant plot for your sapling and all the usual UGC elements (contacts, groups, photos, comments). Prices start at €10 for your bog-standard Acacia Senegal rising to €75 for a Baobab (seemingly the daddy of the indigenous tree population).
Once you've purchased a tree (which you can gift to someone else), a virtual tree appears on the map with its own unique URL (mine's here). With GPS coordinates (not yet added), your virtual tree will correspond to a real-world tree planted in the eco-park in Niger, whose progress you will be able to track online. You can even have photos of your tree sent to you should you so desire. Alternatively, you could wait till the trees (planted in the shape of heart) start showing up on Google Earth.
The interface isn't the smoothest and there have been some grumblings in the comments section of a recent TechCrunch post over Tree-Nation's for-profit status. Personally, I think we should be encouraging business models which benefit the environment and stop demanding that all ethical companies have to be non-profit.
Launched last October, only 387 Tree-Nation trees have been planted at the time of writing so they've still got some way to go. Why not head over there now and bagsy a bush. It's cheaper (not to mention a whole lot more worthwhile) than a Moon Estate.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Much as I love The Internet Movie Database, it's fair to say that it hasn't changed that much in recent years, either in appearance or functionality. Don't believe me? Check out the site as it was back in October 2000 (courtesy of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine) and then play spot the difference with the current site.
Whilst there's certainly something to be said for the 'if it ain't broke' approach, the IMDb's reluctance to mess with a winning formula has created space for a new kind of online movie database to take things in a different direction.
Launched in January 2006, but largely kept under the promotional radar until last November whilst the site was developed, Flixster is hoping to be that new direction. Unable to compete with the IMDb in terms of comprehensiveness, it's key differentiator is that it places its users (rather than the movies) centre-stage.
Whilst music-lovers have been spoilt for choice with regards to social networking sites, film buffs have been somewhat under-served in the Web 2.0 department. It's not that the IMDb is without any interactive features (it has ratings, personalised showtimes, message boards, polls), they're just not very well executed or integrated with the rest of the site. Not so Flixster, which has taken every opportunity to weave its users into the fabric of the site.
Below is a look at some key areas of functionality and how the two sites compare.
Ratings are at the heart of the Flixster offering. In addition to rating movies you've seen (a feature which the IMDb also offers), Flixster encourages you to flag films you've not yet watched with either 'Want to see it' or 'Not interested', not only allowing the site to build up a more detailed picture of your viewing preferences but also generating a list of films you're keen to see, both at the cinema and on DVD. Whilst it is possible to create similar lists using the IMDb's cumbersome 'My Movies' area, it's a laborious process compared with Flixster's one-click approach.
Another nice feature from Flixster in the ratings area is the ability to see how your community of friends rated a particular movie. You can also see the gender split on any given title (the IMDb does have demographic breakdowns of its ratings but they're tucked away on a separate page).
Both sites offer Amazon-style 'Like This? Try This' recommendations. The difference is that Flixster's recommendations can be voted on by other users (thumbs up or thumbs down), whereas IMDb users only have the option of disagreeing with a recommendation (i.e. they can't endorse an existing suggestion). Recommendations are, by their nature, subjective but I have to say I was more convinced by Flixster's suggested alternatives to Magnolia (Boogie Nights, Short Cuts and 21 Grams) than by the IMDb's (The Living and the Dead, Blue Velvet and The Devil's Advocate).
Flixster also enables you to recommend a title to specific friends in your network or you can make use of its simple (but awesome) 'Movie Night Planning Tool' which compares the films you want to see with those your friends have earmarked, to come up with a list of mutually agreeable titles from which to plan your evening's viewing.
The IMDb's News area features syndicated celebrity news from the World Entertainment News Network and movie news from Studio Briefing. Flixster adopts more of a digg approach, allowing users to submit and rate news stories from anywhere on the web. The quality may be variable but it feels a whole lot more dynamic.
Whilst Flixster is unlikely to win any design awards anytime soon, its interface is a damn sight more visually appealing than the IMDb which is in desperate need of a lick of paint. An intriguing design element of Flixster is user-submitted 'skins' themed around particular movies or actors, which can be applied to your own profile. Admittedly some of them look like bad MySpace pages but you can always switch them off.
There's a lot of talk about machine-readable URLs these days. Well, Flixster gets bonus points for having human-readable URLs. Unlike the IMDb, which assigns each entry a number, Flixster uses the actual name of the film in the URL (appending year of release where there's more than one title) making it easy to find pages without having to use the site's search engine.
The one area in which the IMDb comfortably walks it is quality and quantity of information. Having existed in some form since 1989, the IMDb is unrivalled as a source of movie data and it's unlikely that Flixster will ever catch up in this area (not least because it isn't currently capturing cast and crew information beyond the names of the director and lead actors). Whilst I can understand why Flixster has opted not to go head-to-head with the IMDb in this area, it does put a ceiling on potential converts, with serious movie buffs unlikely to put up with Flixster's more superficial treatment of production information.
The IMDb's primary discussion forum is its message boards, although it also allows users to submit comments (which tend to be more like reviews). Flixster doesn't have a message board but does offer separate reviews and comments sections. In terms of quality of debate, the IMDb currently has the edge, with Flixster's demographic skewing the conversation towards discussion of the attractiveness of the leads.
Their approach to associated media is another point of difference between the two sites. Whilst the IMDb only hosts photo galleries for a selection of entries and links to external photos and A/V clips, Flixster invites users to upload images and videos for any entry in the database.
Whilst the IMDb is undoubtedly more comprehensive and authoritative, Flixster has taken advantage of starting with a blank piece of paper in a Web 2.0 world and has outflanked the IMDb on almost every aspect of interactivity. I will doubtless continue to use the IMDb as a reference but suspect I will be spending more of my time on Flixster.
It's a cautionary tale for other established Web 1.0 players tempted to rest on their laurels. There are no sacred cows in the online space and if another site is providing a better service then your users will defect. Flixster is still not in the same league as the IMDb in terms of usage, but it has seen rapid growth in the past 12 months whilst traffic to the IMDb has remained flat.
Right, I'm off to play The Never-Ending Movie Quiz...
UPDATE: Somewhat inevitably, the IMDb began rolling out a phased redesign (starting with the name and title pages) just two days after I posted this. In development for almost a year, the changes are mostly cosmetic at this stage although they've still managed to cause consternation amongst a section of IMDb die-hards. Kudos to Col Needham (founder and managing director of the IMDb) for his full and frank responses to the criticisms on the site's message board and for attempting to ease the transition by keeping the old design up for a while. It's a useful reminder of just how resistant to change an established user base can be.
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Following on from last year's posts on next generation music discovery and new (to me) music apps below is a round-up of some other web-enabled music services which have caught my attention in recent months, which broadly divide into six categories: Playback & Promotion, Playlists & Personalised Radio, Plug-ins, Portability, Performance and Search (damn, I was going for all Ps there...)
Playback & Promotion
radio.blog.club aims to make it easy for Joe/Josephine Public to add commercial music to his/her site/blog/MySpace page either via an embeddable Flash player (which can stream individual tracks - see below example) or by linking to a playlist (known as a juke.blog). It works by playing out mp3 files (cunningly renamed .rbs to flummox the would-be pirates) made available by other users, which inevitably results in a fairly haphazard catalogue with some very messy metadata. On the plus side, no registration is required to embed single tracks and the playback experience is pretty smooth (check out the crossfade!) It's owned by French company Mubility which explains not only why it hasn't been taken down for breach of copyright yet but also why you are invited to update "your informations". The radio.blog.club backend has been given an iPod front-end at blogmusik.net.
Alternatives: Sonific, SeeqPod
iJigg allows users to upload their own MP3s (music or spoken word) which subsequently appear on the site in an Odeo-style embeddable player. They are then rated (jigged) by the community (à la digg) with the idea that the best bubble up to the Most Popular page. Launched on the 15th January it's still early days for the site which, whilst refreshingly easy to use, is struggling to find content which isn't either copyright or crap. Still, it's a potential boon to unsigned artists looking for a straightforward way to upload and promote their music and it gets bonus marks for not requiring a desktop download.
Alternatives: CC Hits, Project Opus, Jamendo
Streampad is an awesome browser-based music player which combines remote access to your entire digital music library (via a downloadable Java app) with some great tools to find music on the web, including an archive of live concert performances and a web search which provides one-click access to MP3s scraped from blogs. It also offers integration with MP3tunes.com (who host online 'lockers' to store your music remotely) and last.fm (so your listening stats are safely scrobbled). Factor in 'Now Playing' info which not only pulls in album reviews, Flickr photos and related blog posts but also shows you who else is listening to the same track and you've got one kick-ass music player.
Playlists & Personalised Radio
finetune's core offering is a playlist creator and artist-themed radio stations. Unfortunately, a really rather slick interface (including an embedded player with CoverFlow-style visuals) is let down by the limitations imposed by finetune's rights agreements - namely that each playlist has to comprise exactly 45 songs with no more than 3 tracks from any one artist. Whilst there's an option to auto-complete your playlist using recommendations provided by finetune (the audaciously titled "I'm lazy!" button), the suggestions seem very linear (mostly other tracks from the same artists) and it doesn't offset the sense of frustration at having to create a playlist of a set number of tracks. It just all feels a bit laborious for those used to last.fm logging their listening and creating lists automatically. The artist-themed radio station element also suffer in comparison to a major competitor; Pandora enables you to give the thumbs up or thumbs down to specific tracks to educate it about your tastes which feels like a significant omission from finetune. It's a shame because it's a nice site nobbled more by rights than technology or design. Close, but no cigar.
Alternatives: FIQL, SonicSwap
Twones is an iTunes plug-in (Mac or PC) which uploads your Top 100 Most Played tracks and then matches your musical proclivities with other users in the Twones database. Whilst it feels a little basic in comparison with the likes of MyStrands, iLike and last.fm it has the advantage of giving you useful recommendations from the off (the others take a while to build a useful knowledge of your listening habits). Incidentally, Twones was developed in the Netherlands so don't be alarmed if you get the error message 'Gebruikersnaam en/of Wachtwoord is onjuist' - a quick Dutch to English translation on Babel Fish revealed I'd simply entered an incorrect username or password...
Alternatives: uPlayMe, Muiso, Musicmobs
phling! aims to give users access to their digital music collection (and that of their friends) on their mobile phones. There's a decent selection of supported handsets, including my now rather aged K750i, although the desktop client is only available for PC and only supports Windows Media Player friendly file formats (so no access to tracks purchased from the iTunes Music Store). The mobile phone client is a 289Kb Java app which downloaded in a jiffy and worked straight off the bat. The interface is nicely implemented with navigation through your music collection proving fast and intuitive. The sound quality is excellent with surprisingly little buffering and the ability to rate tracks is a nice feature. phling! also enables you to access photos stored on your computer and (handset permitting) save photos taken on your mobile direct to your home PC. My only reservation is data charges which I'm guessing could easily rack up if you used phling! as your main portable music player.
Alternatives: Mercora M, Orb, Avvenu
partyStrands is an intriguing offshoot of MyStrands (ne. MusicStrands) which aims to get partygoers using their mobiles to influence the music at participating bars /clubs. The idea is that the partyStrands interface is displayed on the venue's TVs and punters can vote on what music they want to hear and send pictures and text messages to the screens. The messages and details of the tracks played are then aggregated and uploaded to the partyStrands site so you can log on the following morning and relive the night. It's only rolled out in France, Spain and the States at the moment and there are just three events listed on the Upcoming Parties page. Definitely one to watch though.
Alternatives: Er, can't think of any.
eJamming is another service aiming to facilitate live music, this time by enabling musicians with MIDI-enabled instruments to jam online in real-time. I haven't had the opportunity to try it out yet but the demo video looks pretty damn impressive.
SingShot gives karaoke the Web 2.0 treatment, enabling the great unwashed to upload their warblings to be tagged, shared, rated and commented on. It's strangely compelling in a car-crash kind of a way and seems likely to succeed in these X Factor times of ours.
Alternatives: kSolo, Internet Karaoke, bix, MyVideoKaraoke
midomi's USP is enabling users to search for music using their voice (singing, humming or whistling) so the service pretty much stands or falls on how successfully it does that. Fortunately for parent company, Melodis, the answer is really quite well, especially when you consider that the service has only been up and running for a couple of weeks and its database of user-submitted tunes can't yet be that large. I sang it a quick ABC of karaoke staples and it successfully identified Angels, American Pie, Bohemian Rhapsody and Crazy (both the Patsy Cline classic and the Gnarls Barkley chart-topper). Assuming midomi's proprietary Multimodal Adaptive Recognition System (MARS) scales successfully, it's an interesting (and free) alternative to Shazam.
Alternatives: Nayio, SongTapper, Musipedia
TuneFind is all about exorcising the earworm and finding the name of the track from that TV show/movie you saw last week. The homepage features recent additions, hot songs and all-time popular artists (Snow Patrol are currently the most soundtrack-friendly band, with a whopping 38 entries). Song listings are submitted by users and then verified by the rest of the TuneFind community who can flag submissions as correct or incorrect. It's not exactly cutting edge but it's a useful resource and may stem the flow of 'what was that song...?' submissions to Yahoo! Answers.
Alternatives: Commercial Breaks and Beats, Sounds Familiar, TV Ad music.co.uk
Thursday, February 01, 2007
So I managed to get Joost up and running on my PC (turns out I'd left Hardware Acceleration switched off after taking some screengrabs in Windows Media Player) and I'm inferring from the availability of screengrabs on the site "that anyone can use to illustrate stories or blog posts about Joost" that its now cool to write about it (I'm sure their lawyers will let me know if not).
For the uninitiated, Joost (formerly known as The Venice Project) is a peer-to-peer TV distribution technology from Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis (founders of Skype and Kazaa), currently in closed beta. Interestingly the keyword here is not peer-to-peer, or for that matter distribution, but TV, for Joost's real innovation is not one of technical delivery but of interface design (or, more specifically, interface hybridisation).
Prior to Joost, almost all online distributors of TV content adopted a very web (or in some cases, desktop) focused approach to presentation (i.e. the applications looked and behaved like web/desktop applications). What Zennström and Friis have done is salvage the baby from the bathwater in appropriating some of the best things about broadcast TV and then adding on layers of web-enabled goodness.
For example, the first thing that strikes you when you fire up the app is that it immediately starts playing full screen video. There are no option screens to plough through, no wizard to explain how everything works. You just switch it on and it starts playing. Like a TV.
You move the mouse to the top of the screen in search of a menu bar. Guess what? No menu bar. Just four graphical elements along each of the screen's 'hot edges' (see below grab). Along the bottom is 'The Controller', a navigational panel comprising familiar transport controls (Pause, Restart current programme, Skip to next programme), a volume control and a channel changer. Ok, you think, it's like a TV/DVD remote. I get it. Although hang on a minute, isn't that a Search box? On my TV remote? You panic and press the Standby button. The image shrinks to a white dot in the centre of the screen...
The extent to which Joost borrows the behavioural and iconographic characteristics of TV is initially disconcerting, then strangely reassuring as you realise that they've mostly taken the good bits. 'My Channels', which is located on the left-hand hot edge, is essentially an EPG (Electronic Programme Guide), showcasing the available channels (28 at time of writing) with a few navigational/promotional aids (e.g. Staff picks, Most interactive, New channels).
However, Joost also capitalises on the inherent strengths of the Internet and layers web-enabled elements over the top of the broadcast TV environment. The right-hand hot edge features 'My Joost' which offers a selection of semi-transparent widget overlays (they call them plugins) which float over the top of the TV image. At the time of writing there are only half a dozen plugins to choose from, although that will no doubt increase as the beta progresses. These range from the really rather ordinary (Clock, Notice Board, News Ticker) to the potentially quite disruptive (Instant Messaging, Rate It, Channel Chat). It's surely only a matter of time before a Skype widget arrives, enabling your friends to talk over your favourite programme remotely.
The potential of the 'Interactive programme information' hot spot, at the top of the screen, hasn't yet been fully realised with just two programmes (the unlikely pairing of 'Lassie' and 'The World's Strongest Man') offering any degree of interactivity, although its only fairly basic browsable text and video content which might just about pass muster as an interactive TV app but seems inadequate when you're sat in front of a net-connected PC.
So, what of the actual viewing experience? The video and audio quality are really pretty impressive with a refreshing absence of discernible artifacts. How long you'll spend watching is more dependent on the quality of the content, which is the application's real $64,000 question. At this early stage Joost still essentially feels like a technological proof-of-concept, albeit a very compelling one. Whether it succeeds in changing the way the world consumes TV, as it's founders clearly hope, now depends on the quality of the content. Saying no to user-generated programming is an obvious differentiator from YouTube et al. but also a clear marker in terms of where Joost hopes to position itself on the quality spectrum.
Whether or not Zennström and Friis are able to secure the content and advertising deals they'll need to make this thing fly (the smart money says yes), it remains a fascinating example of hybridisation, combining some of the best elements of broadcast TV (an intuitive interface, high production values, a scalable distribution model) with some of the most compelling uses of the net (on-demand delivery, social networking, long tail economics).
I can't help feeling that there's a lesson here for other market sectors attempting to translate established industries into successful online propositions; namely, don't try and reinvent the wheel when you can create something far superior by adopting a magpie approach, plundering the existing model for the elements which work, disregarding those that don't and cherry-picking from the smorgasbord of new net-based technologies.
Having spearheaded revolutions in both music distribution and telephony, the dynamic P2P duo look all set to repeat the feat with TV. The question is 'what next?' I'm thinking distributed gaming, although Joost is likely to keep them busy for a good while yet.