CES and the future of television

I normally don't follow the ConsumerElectronics Show, but this year is different. The way in which it isdifferent for me is also part of the story of the show.

I've been watching coverage ofthe show via the livestream from This Week in Tech. As well as this, I have Rhythmbox(an Audio/Video tool that supports RSS) automaticallydownloading both the MP3 audio and the Video downloads for their TWiT Live @CES.

The live video stream, as wellas the video stream, has been great to watch. In fact, it makes medream for the day when all the content I access comes this way: overthe Internet. I really find television annoying, and want morecontent on-demand where I can automatically via RSS download it aheadof time and watch it when I have the time — and on the devices of mychoice.

I should jump back a month tomy interventionat the CRTC on December 9'th. The context was theso-called “Local TV Matters” debate which has very littleto do with local television. This is a public feud between broadcast networks and broadcast undertakings (cable and satellitecompanies), each claiming that the other one is responsible for thedecline in local television content. In the beginning of myintervention I suggested that they were both wrong, and suggested myanswer to them was “a pox on all their houses”.

The latter part of myintervention focused on what I consider to be the best way to solvelonger-term problems with television, which is to abolish thiscommunications exception. We have other connections into our homefor a variety of utilities, with energy having a structuralseparation between the content (electricity generation, natural gas)and the distribution network. The distribution network needs to besupplied from a fully neutral third party that is not involved incontent, with the utility model being the one that I suggest.

With this structuralseparation we will finally get the competition we need to moreforward with more options on the content and communications servicesside. In December I finally got rid of Bell for my home phone,switching to TekSavvy. While this switches where my billing goes to, this service is stillbased on a wholesale service from Bell. No matter who I hire forservices, there are only two communications wires into my home: oneallegedly “owned” by Bell, the other by Rogers.

I amactively looking to do the same thing for my television (getting ridof the BDU — I don't want Rogers, Bell or ExpressView), as well asmy cell phone (I don't want Rogers, Bell or Telus — I currently usethe Fido brand from Rogers). I am quite excited about thepossibility of competitive cell phone companies, such as WindMobile. One of the big announcements just before CES was Google's launch ofthe NexusOne. Turns out that Windis already in conversation with Google to have this phoneon their network. Will I be able to get an unlocked (all meaningsof the word: unlocked from carrier, and unlocked from themanufacturer with a FLOSS operating system) Android OpenSource phone in Ottawa some time this year? Seems like this mayhappen!

This brings me back toTelevision. I also want this unlocked, where the content is not tiedto any specific brand of devices. As soon as you lock the content itwill be less valuable to me, and even if I own one of the “approved”devices I am unlikely to purchase the content. The reality is thatthere is so much content out there that it is simply not worth mytime to access content where the distributor is going out of theirway to make the content less valuable.

One of the cool devicesannounced was the BoxeeBox. This is another unlockedmedia device such as the NeurosOSD device I purchased a few years back. While the OSD isfocused on being a PVR device for recording and playing back what wasrecorded, Boxie is a derivative of the FLOSS XBMC media center thatis focused on getting content from the Internet onto your television. For those in the United States they actively work to ensure that Hulu works,despite the fact that Hulu seems to be actively trying to break theirservice to not work with all devices. Hopefully Hulu will grow upand instead work with Boxee to ensure ongoing compatibility.

In Canada we're still waitingfor a similar service, given Hulu is geo-blocking on behalf of theCanadian broadcasting monopolists rather than making arrangementswith Canadian advertisers to pay for the content. I would even bewilling to become a paid subscriber if that option were available,but that would assume compatibility with my DRM-free devices. Theability to download and not be dependent on the quality of thenetwork connection would also be far more valuable than streaming.

Some shows are made available,but even the videocontent from CBC doesn'twork on the devices that I tried. The problem is that thebroadcast networks still focused on legacy distribution channels,adding to their legacy television service an online service that isonly tested on the historically popular legacy desktop operatingsystems and browsers. They aren't looking to the future set-top boxeswhich tend to be more standards-based.

While the hardware andsoftware is there, the traditional content isn't. Will this be theyear that I simply switch to competing content such as what the TWITnetwork is building, dropping watching traditional television contententirely?  When do you think Google will be offering major studio content through some distribution service (YouTube or otherwise) that will make much of the traditional BDU sector irrelevant? What are your thoughts on the future of television, andhow those producing television seem to be going out of their way tokeep us in the past?

P.S. Two more episodes of Dollhouse,and then I'll be buying the Season 2 DVD as soon as it is released. It is quite possible that buying DVDs is how I'll be watching TVDrama in the future. I'll be a paying customer, but my support won'tgo into the bogus statistics used to determine what shows will havenew episodes made.

Russell McOrmond is a self employed consultant,policy coordinator for CLUE:Canada's Association for Free/Libre and Open Source Software,co-coordinator for Getting Open Source Logic INto Governments (GOSLING),and host for DigitalCopyright Canada.

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