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Cable Content Conundrums

December 27th, 2013

This past Sunday I decided to fire up the ol’ Apple TV to see if any new and exciting was available on Netflix or HBO. Before I even had a chance to scroll down to Netflix or HBO GO, Apple, in that way they are so good at doing, caught my attention with new movies that are new and available through iTunes. There I saw “The World’s End” and got really excited. Simon Pegg is one of my favorite actors and he’s one of those actors that when I see that he is in a movie, I’m pretty sure that the movie is going to be good, especially when his buddy Nick Frost is also involved as in this film.

So, I’m excited about watching this movie, but before I purchase I click on the movie in iTunes and see that it’s $5.99 to rent. That seems a little steep, so I decide to see if my cable provider, Optimum, has the film on demand and alas, they do and for only $4.99. I consider myself a pretty logical person so if I can spend $4.99 instead of $5.99 on the exact same thing, $4.99 is the way to go. The page of the movie has a menu on the left side with the options Preview, Add to Cart, Purchase and Close. Why exactly they have both Purchase and Add to Cart seemed a bit strange, but I knew I wanted to watch the movie and didn’t have time for the cart so I click on Purchase – BOOM, let’s make this happen!

Blank black screen.

I must have pushed the wrong button or something, so let’s do it again. Purchase – BOOM, let’s make this happen!

Blank black screen.

Obviously, something that I’m doing is wrong, because Optimum, in their wisdom and infinite supply of money, and thus limitless user experience and testing resources, would never make it difficult for their customers to give them more money, right? So, I add the movie to the cart, so far, so good – until I try to complete my purchase again – you guessed it, blank black screen.

Back into Apple TV I go, annoyed at Optimum for their crappy user experience as well as with myself for having subjected myself to that to save a whole $1. The movie was right there at the top of the home screen, I was able to click on it, click the purchase button, enter my iTunes password and the movie started playing. It was so simple. I’m sure there’s a setting that automatically remembers my iTunes password that would’ve made it even easier to complete the purchase – so simple!

This whole experience couldn’t be that dissimilar to what others must have experienced when trying to purchase on demand movies through their cable/satellite providers. I consider myself pretty tech savvy and I was having problems, so I’m sure others who are less so would have also given up trying to make a purchase and may never go back to trying again. What sort of unrealized annual revenue are cable companies losing out on due to their shortsightedness in regards to testing and user experience? I have no idea and I’m almost positive they don’t either. That got me thinking about Apple and their model of selling through iTunes.

Apple and Cable/Wireless – Enemies and Allies

Apple has two classes of products, hardware: iPhone, iPads, Macs and content: movies, music, books sold through iTunes and now (ugh) iBooks. I don’t know the breakdown in terms of revenue for Apple, but I find it interesting how dependent Apple is on another company whether it be the cable/satellite or telecommunication providers who are also selling the same products. It’s an interesting relationship that Apple has to maintain with these companies are imperative to Apple’s success. I’m sure deals are made and the cable/satellite/telcomms are receiving a money from Apple to assure that this relationship continues to be beneficial for both sides.

But what if the cab/sat/tel companies got their acts together and created some exquisite user experiences that made users want to use their native interfaces for media instead of iTunes? Even more potentially game-changing, what if one company created hardware and access to content like Apple but also controlled the network connection. Imagine and company crazy enough to try that?!

The Google

Back in March of 2011 Google announced that they were going to roll out their Google Fiber initiative which would bring broadband internet and television to a small but growing list of communities in the U.S. Though Google has said that they don’t intend to become an internet service provider, the fact that they have gone ahead and done this is a massive game changer in the ISP realm, shaking up the monopoly and lack of choices that has been in place since the beginning of cable television. The number of communities they service is still small, but what it shows is Google being able to control the entire media transaction. A user in Kansas City, MO using Google Fiber at home can now use their Google Nexus 7 tablet running the Android operating system (another Google product) to access the Google Play store, which is similar to the Apple iTunes store to purchase music, movies, books, apps, newspapers and comics. That is the ultimate start to finish transaction through Google. The only way it could be more Googley would be if Google curated their own content like Netflix has done with “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black.” That doesn’t seem likely at this time, but if someone told you 3 years ago that Google was going to roll out broadband service, you might have thought that sounded crazy too.

Why is it important to control the end to end connection, besides the fact that it gives you ultimate control?

SOPA, PIPA< CISPA

In May of 2011 the Protect IP Act (PIPA) was introduced to the United States Senate that would give the U.S. government more tools to fight “rogue websites dedicated to the sale of infringing or counterfeit goods,” especially those outside the U.S. Opponents to the bill included Google and American Express who proclaimed that the proposed law would defend and protect outdated business models while stifling innovation from newer, more innovative companies and smaller businesses who wouldn’t have the legal and administrative budgets to protect themselves if they were found in violation and needed to defend themselves.

Shortly after PIPA, SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that was created with similar intentions to PIPA, protecting content creators from having their works of art stolen and pirated by blocking access to sites that contained pirated material and blocked as well as blocking advertisers and search engines from linking to infringing websites. Sounds like a nice thing, right? The can of worms that it opened was that it violated first amendment rights in the United States and would attempt to use U.S. law to block international sites without jurisdiction. It has had the potential to take down entire domains where only a fraction of the domain was in violation. Imagine if you had an entire network of 50 websites built upon one WordPress installation and one of those sites was in violation and your entire network was taken down. That’s the reality of life in a SOPA world.

The latest bill to come through congress is Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) which allows the sharing of information between the U.S. Government and technology companies in hopes of preventing network cyberattacks. This bill used the Patriot Act and PROTECT Our Children Act to boost support which it already had from some big name tech companies like Verizon, Oracle, Symantec, AT&T, IBM and Intel. While there was a large amount of support, there was equal if not greater opposition from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) the Constitution Project (TCP) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) among many others. Opponents saw this as “Big Brother” collecting massive amounts of information on user behavior, without any restrictions or guidelines to how that data could be used. The bill had passed in the House of Representatives, but was blocked in the Senate.

Luckily, all three of these acts have been shot down for the time being, but there always seems to be the threat of another law. What makes laws like this so tricky is that with the increased use of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we are often reposting content from elsewhere to share with our friends and users. That could be interpreted as copyright violation, even when the content is being shared, giving credit to the original creator. That’s a very slippery slope, especially since we are now being an online society of sharing which is only going to increase over time.

Part of the reason the internet has always fought these bills is that the people who are trying to enact them don’t seem to understand the technology they are trying to create rules for. Let’s me honest with ourselves, if a lobbyist who is pledging to give you $1 million for next campaign and access to a private jet, would you be able to do the right thing, or would you just keep pushing the agenda of the group funding you? We’re all humans and we all have biases that affect our judgements, values, beliefs and actions. It’s not possible for human’s to be able to decide which sites are in violation of these rules with 100% accuracy.

Can You Have it All?

The landscape of the internet changes so quickly and smart corporations and governments of the world (don’t laugh) are doing all that it can to adapt and protect their interests. It’s hard to say where things will be in 5 or 10 years. The internet is still so new and so quickly mutating that if we were today shown what our internet looks like in 10 years, we might not recognize it. What must happen in the future is that for the internet to continue to have value, it must continue to build on its collaboration capabilities and increase interactions that were once only possible in person in the ways that Skype, Facebook and Twitter among others already have.

What that all starts and ends with is the network connection. Where will it come from and who will own it? Ten years ago, most of us had to get internet from our cable or DSL providers. Now usage is split between cable/DSL and mobile providers. Right now Google looks to be in the best situation with their Fiber product as well as the hardware and Android OS, but only time can tell. All we can do as internet users is to support companies that believe in a free and open internet, because it’s that freedom and ability to connect that gives the internet and in turn, us, its power.