Parks Associates Blog

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Casting, Shifting, and Serving Simplified

So, maybe a little technology temper tantrum can get some attention after all! The folks at Orb Networks contacted me after reading my Curses! Foiled Again! write-up on my recent frustrations with a media adapter. To remind you about that hard-luck story, I tinkered with a media adapter to solve our problem of getting Media Center recorded television programming back in our bedroom from the PC located in the central area of the house. Everything worked great until the device didn't recognize the legacy TV tuners already installed on the Media Center. It was an unfortunate incident after having experienced very little pain and suffering during the preliminary installation and set-up process.

I had mentioned my use of the free Orb Networks software as a "stop-gap" measure to watch Media Center recorded TV programming in our bedroom. Basically, we take the laptop, boot it up, connect to the home network, open the Web browser, and then log into the Orb Networks account. They take care of all of the content manipulation by detecting the broadband/wireless network connection and adjusting the video quality appropriately.

It's an easy solution, and it's fun, too. I recently showed off Orb Networks to my in-laws in Indianapolis when we were visiting over Memorial Day weekend. Did you know that the Indianapolis 500 car race is actually blacked out on TV within a 50-mile radius of the city? My in-laws for years have been listening to the race on the radio, and using their imagination, I suppose. I was able to boot up my brother-in-law's laptop and bring up our ABC feed from Dallas so we could watch the race. Was it a perfect solution? No - the wireless connection at his house was such that there was a lot of buffering and pauses in the action. But, it demonstrated a good point - media shifting doesn't necessarily have to be frustrating and complicated. There are actually solutions that make it happen relatively easy.

I was able to catch up with the Orb Networks folks yesterday in a briefing, and they've made some substantial deals in recent months. For example, I didn't know that all Nintento Wii, PlayStation3, and Xbox 360 units can now use Orb Networks and serve as media adapters in their own rights. This makes sense to us Microsoft Xbox 360 owners have shown a strong propensity to using the platform to connect to Microsoft's own content services - the Microsoft Live Marketplace, particularly. The game console is really well positioned to act in a Trojan Horse fashion in the living room and perhaps challenge the existing set-top box model in a way in which no other platform to date has been able to do. Think about it - today's game consoles are going to be purchased because they do one thing really well - they give users access to great gaming content. However, if even a percentage of the consoles are used in conjunction with a broadband service to find, access, stream and/or download content such as high-quality music videos, movie trailers, TV shows, or movies, they instantly become the best-selling media adapters in the market. And, this is done without requiring the user to purchase yet one more black box in the living room. With all of the talk about what role the Apple TV is going to play in the living room, I dare say that the strongest threat may come from Microsoft, which has - despite lots of criticism aimed at its various CE strategies - provided an excellent platform in the Xbox 360 from which to access content well beyond games.

In addition to the game consoles, Orb has agreements with several major 3G handset makers and service providers (Nokia and Hutchinson, respectively). There are also several hardware/platform vendors using Orb as a value-added feature. Amino, one of the larger vendors of low-cost IPTV set-top boxes, Futarque (another set-top box developer), and ASUS showcased a media server at CEBIT that uses Orb for shifting.

The serving capabilities of Orb are also interesting. With the Orb 2.0 software, users can participate in what Orb Networks terms "MyCasting" applications, where a personal Website (public.orb.com) can be set up and where content can be shared without going through timely and sometimes frustrating uploading.

Speaking about the ease of using Orb - as it relates to mobile applications - Orb's Hervé Utheza said that it's as simple as having a Web browser, a decent connection, and a mobile plan that supports streaming. Doesn't that sound like a simple plan to get more people on board with the idea of interacting more with their content on their terms? Our role here at Parks isn't to endorse specific companies, but we can definitely support the notion of more flexible use of media, where a lot of the complexity gets taken out of the hands of the customer. We'll look forward to future updates from the Orb team.

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