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Web Exclusive: Michael Heiss Goes Over the Top

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Examining a New Trend in How Consumers Receive, Store, Manage and Play Content

More than one member of my family has been accused as being a bit "over the top." Some of those who have sat through my seminars at CEDIA and other trade conferences have, on occasion, suggested that my presentations are over the top. OK, according to traditional definitions, I'll admit here to sometimes being guilty to that as charged. Similarly, since the apples don't fall far from the tree, my 22-year-old son has also been told he's over the top, and his occasionally theatrical presentations likely steal a few hints from the old man. However, as a university student living on the very fringe areas of broadcast television stations, and having broadband -- but not cable or satellite -- he's definitely over the top in a second way, using a more recent definition of that phrase.

These days, when someone in the world of media analysis talks about "over the top," they are not talking about an exaggerated personality, but rather about the trend on the part of an increasing part of the population to "cut the cord" to cable and satellite delivered programming and receive their video entertainment via a combination of free, over the air, broadcasting and internet or "cloud content" for everything else. In this economy, going "over the top" is a necessary cost-cutting step, and presumably that isn't something that impacts clients in the world of custom installation, but it does presage a trend in how consumers receive, store, manage and play out content. It also speaks to the value they put on that content as an indicator for how you provision for it in any installation.

My Son in College
Let's go back to our young student for the moment. Far from our dorm room of many years ago, my son has a 32-inch LCD TV, an AV receiver with BIG L/R and center-channel speakers, Xbox 360, an iPod with docking station, a printer/scanner, and of course, a laptop with high-speed access. Last year when that pesky studying stuff interferred with Heros, 24, or Lost, it was "Dad, can you burn a DVD of the show and mail it up to me?” Yes, we do have a Pinnacle PCTV box that could, in theory, access the TiVo back home, but network speed and the image quality when using an older laptop's VGA connection to the TV limited its use outside of a critical Dodgers game or two.

This year, with the laptop being replaced by a new model having an HDMI output, things have changed. Frat meeting at the same time as Chuck? No problem, catch it the next day on Hulu. Paper due when there is a "very special episode" of Lost? ABC.com to the rescue later in the week. OK, movies are still consumed using DVDs rented from Netflix and played on the computer or Xbox 360, but that's changing soon for him, too. Video and audio quality? It’s not "True HD," but more than close enough, and better than the grainy analog that Dad watched so many years ago in college.

Push this off as the reality of a student with a father, that while frugal, is after all, in the consumer electronics business if you will, but the media consumption patterns that Daniel and his contemporaries are developing will impact your business as this future client base graduates and joins the workforce. Equally important, having grown up as the digital generation, they will be the go-to influencers, as Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, Aunts and Uncles, and even older brothers and sisters seek their advice when you tender a project bid to family and friends who CAN afford your services today.

Before you accuse me of getting too over the top in the old-fashioned sense, with accusations of hysterics, it is clear that the move to the new definition of over the top will be a slow and gradual one, and the likelihood of your clients calling you to rip out their cable boxes or remove the satellite dishes is slim. At least, for now.


A Custom Installation Role
Like it or not, the new world of "over the top" is on the way, and even if your clients stay with their current, conventional main portals to linear broadcast, "pay" and "cable" networks, there are lessons to be learned that allow them to give you more program flexibility even with access through current channels. In addition, by being up on the inner workings of the over the top world, you'll be ready to not only answer their questions, you'll be able to extend your "electronic concierge" service beyond the home, to their "on the road" needs and the needs of non-technical family members away from home such as our own prototypical student.

At the most basic, it's easy enough to simply go over the top: Connect an off-air antenna to display with a digital tuner, connect a computer to the video display, and provision the computer for high-speed broadband connectivity. A VGA connection is nice, by of course HDMI is better. Don't forget reasonably capable speakers for the computer, preferably something that is a 2.1 system.

Using that as a starting point, the user can then do more or less everything described in my introduction. Watch over-the-air television, take advantage of the additional program services offered as multi-cast by many (though not all) digital broadcasters, and, using nothing more complex than a browser pointed to the appropriate network or program supplier's web site, watch the programming that is available, including "day-after" viewing of many hit television shows.

Looking for movies? Without much more than some downloaded software and a subscription or per-view charges where applicable, content is available through iTunes, Netflix, Amazon On-Demand and CinemaNow. The computer either serves as the vehicle to access and manage a live download stream, or to act as the storage bin for downloaded rental content.

Looking to add DVR capability without too much trouble, a variety of companies such as Hauppauge that offer products that enable that through the use of USB-connected or plug-in card ATSC (and often clear-QAM for cable) tuners with software takes the onus of tuning off the video display and onto the computer. That will also allow the computer's hard drive to record off-air content for later viewing, and with applicable plug-ins, even record it back our to a standard DVD or Blu ray disc.

Looking for improved navigation and control? This isn't something you'd necessarily do with a high powered touchscreen keypad system, as cost is likely to be important here. Instead, since for the moment our presumption is that the PC is in the same room as the user and their display, consider adding on a USB to IR sensor and then put a Media Center remote into the mix. Or, go all the way and use an RF wireless mouse as the remote and a wireless keyboard.

For navigation, make life easier for the user. Rather than complicating life by having them go to the specific website for each service they watch, add desktop icons or shortcuts for services, or, even better, point to programmer owned aggregators such as Hulu, which combines programming from NBC and Fox, and perhaps soon Disney-owned ABC on one site. Alternatively, load and add shortcuts to the likes of Boxee, Blinkx, ZeeVee's Zinc or MediaMall's Play On. These act as a "front door" to not only a wide range of high-profile traditional content, but they also incorporate easy to use links to user generated content, or "UGC", (read YouTube) and other sites.

So far, nothing spectacular, though in the model so far the computer has to be in the same room with, and preferably adjacent to, the video display. That's not a problem in a dorm room or small apartment where the laptop may easily be unplugged from the display to be used for word processing or other tasks best performed at a desk and without the large-screen monitor, but not what most clients would want in a grand scale viewing room, kitchen or bedroom. To some, this is where the "over the top" model for access to program content begins to fall apart. Perhaps, perhaps not.

Depending on how much things are arranged in the over-the-topper's home, one option is to use a product such as ZeeVee, which converts content on the computer to an HD modulated signal and then sends it around the house to be received on the TV. Add in an RF remote, either ZeeVee's or someone else's and the display and PC need no longer live next to one another. Another answer might be to install MediaMall's PlayOn on the PC in one room and use a PS3 or Xbox 360 (and according to MediaMall, soon even a Wii) as the terminal client device in the viewing area.

Another approach is to use an AppleTV to funnel content from a remote PC to a display in another room, or to use a an Xbox 360 or PS3 as they are to access a remote PC and their own links to various movie download and content provisioning services. Looking for an "over the top" DVR? TiVoHD will work just fine, for while it is most often used on cable services, it also has dual ATSC over the air tuners, where its competitor, Moxi, does not. (Look for a full comparison and in-home test report on Moxi and TiVo in an upcoming issue of RS!)

If movies are really all the OTT'er is looking for, along with some additional content links, a half-way measure would be to access Netflix via one of the Blu ray players now in the market that offer that service, or through the Netflix/Xbox 360 connection. There are also movie download services on PS3, AppleTV or Vudu. Here, something beyond a computer is required, and of course the movies are not free, which is the main concept behind OTT, but at least their cost is controllable due to the Pay-Per-View nature of the rentals.

Another "semi-OTT" way of accessing cloud content without a computer is from products such as Verismo Lab's VuNow box, D-Link's DSM-250 MediaLounge, and Netgear's ITV2000 Internet TV Player. Of course, more traditional "Media Center Extender" type products that access both computers and NAS storage may also be used in service to the OTT mantra.

If all of this sounds as though it might put both you and the service providers out of business, we've reached the point where the "yeah but’s” need to be tallied up. For example, the idea of going over the top for many is to cut back on their content service costs. That's more than possible, BUT, can they go without HBO, Showtime, and all the pay networks? Unlike the broadcast and some basic cable networks, you won't find the first run programming from the pay services on the 'net at this time. OTT, is fine, BUT, is the "OTT'er" ready to give up pro, college and other sporting events in real time on ESPN and the various Fox Sports or similar networks. Are they really ready to do that? Can the news junkie REALLY do without CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, CNBC and the like?

Reality says that unless the user is willing to live with over-the-air only, they will have to get broadband access somewhere, and particularly when that comes via a cable modem, once you are in for the "penny" of high-speed, they may as well go in for the "pound" of some sort of basic and extended cable tiers.

The Question of HD
We're all getting spoiled by high definition, and download speed limits and heavy compression ensure that while some HD programming is possible through the 'net, it won't match up to the 720p and 1080i from cable or satellite. It's close, but definitely no cigar. How about 5.1 sound? Forget it as an OTT'er at this time. Some may say that this isn't important to the Gen. X and Gen. Y'er raised on compressed MP 3-based content, but over the long haul, the appeal of a crisp, high-resolution image and multi-channel sound over often jerky, pausing, macro-blocky, low resolution content in stereo will lead them back to a full bandwidth content channel via cable or DBS.

Going back to the notion that OTT is a cost-saving vehicle, perhaps it is in severe examples. However, as a true OTT'er increases their downloads and streams, particularly in HD, and if you add to that other content downloads, regular data file transfers, and then throw upload of UGC as they look to move into the mix, the monthly data usage begins to add up. Cognizant of this, there is a great deal of discussion, and some localized experiments, in the cable business world of bandwidth caps and tiering for heavy users or at the very least charges for extra use that will be the broadband equivalent of going over the monthly minute allowance on a cell phone bill. That's another way of saying it's gonna cost!

After all, if too many consumers with cable modems cut back on pay and extended tier services and go OTT, there is not only the loss of revenue from the dropped services, but the added cost of increasing system infrastructure to deliver high speed to everyone at the same time. That costs money, and if you think that won't be passed along, I've got a bridge to sell you. Coming out of this year's NCTA "National Show", which is the "CES" or CEDIA Expo for the cable world, alternative service ideas of allowing cable subscribers access to pay network and other content via the internet. The catch is that you will have to already be a subscriber, so while this will be great for families or those frequently on the road, but it really won't save money due to the requirement for the underlying subscription.

As you begin to add this all up, it becomes clear that in some cases, going over the top is a viable, though perhaps limited alternative for some media consumers or modest installations. However, if presented with a client request for over the top, the task is certainly manageable. After all, someone calling in a residential systems design/installation firm isn't likely to be looking for an inexpensive way out, but more probably they are using the OTT model as a means of expressing the type of content they wish to view and listen to. That's far from the end of the world for you, indeed, it may be the ticket to a job that isn't that small, at all.

In one case, OTT may be read as a desire to access content sources beyond those normally available through over the air, cable or satellite. Beyond the products listed above, one obvious alternative that should not be overlooked is the option of an HTPC or Media Center product specifically designed for the custom environment such as those from Niveus, S1 Digital and others. They deliver everything discussed here, and much more. Alternatively, using the right type of terminal products at the viewing/listening location, be it a TiVo, Moxi, or a game console can do the trick. Going forward, some network connectivity will increasingly be part of more traditional optical player, surround processor or AV receiver product, and with simple setting changes to the media player of a computer connected to the home network will also do the trick.

Lest we forget, if OTT-like activity is going on throughout a house, that increases the simultaneous bandwidth requirement, making your case for high-end wireless or, even better, high-speed wired networked infrastructure throughout the house. That IS what you do for a living, right?

In an economic environment where many are cutting back, discussion of over the top has some of the program suppliers scratching their heads about how to monetize it and prevent it from siphoning ad dollars out of traditional media delivery channels. It clearly has some service suppliers very concerned, and at first glance it would be understandable if designer/installers saw it as a worrisome trend.

Fortunately, like many other things in business and life at large, what it really calls for is taking a step back, breathing deeply, pausing, and then digging into what it is all about and finding out what it really means. From there, you may be concerned, but not worried. At the end of the day, the concepts raised by OTT may turn out to bring you business, not take jobs from you!

Michael Heiss (captnvideo@aol.com) is a contributing editor for Residential Systems, based in Los Angeles.

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