While many media companies would like to see the first sale doctrine done away with, ever since the supreme court established the doctrine in 1908, consumers have enjoyed tremendous benefits from it. The concept, which was later codified into law in 1976, allows businesses and individuals to resell goods that they’ve legally purchased. Without it, companies like Ebay, Craigslist and Blockbuster Video wouldn’t even be possible.
Having the right to resell goods benefits consumers in two major ways. First, it reduces the risks that consumers have to take when making purchases. This ultimately makes things cheaper for all of us, because companies are forced to compete with their own products and consumers have a way of recouping part of their initial expense.
When I first purchased my TiVo series 3 for example, I spent over $800 on the product. While this may seem like an insane amount to spend for television, I was able to justify the cost in part, because I sold my original TiVo on eBay for $200 and knew that one day I would be able to resell my Series 3 (currently worth approximately $400 on Ebay) to recover part of my expense. As a result, I’ve been able to enjoy a premium DVR experience for about 1/3rd what it would have cost me to rent an inferior DVR from my cable company.
The second benefit to the consumer is that by having a robust resell market, it allows more businesses/middlemen to participate. This ultimately increases demand, stimulates innovation, and drives down prices. Redbox for example is able to rent you a DVDs at 1/20th of the cost or what it would cost you to buy the actual DVD thanks in large part to the first sale doctrine. Because Redbox knows that they can get more than 20 people to share the same product, it enables consumers to save money, the media companies to sell more DVDs and for Redbox to still earn a tidy profit in the process.
While the first sale doctrine has been a huge benefit for consumers over the last 100 years, these benefits are rapidly being eroded as media moves digital. Because the first sale doctrine was based on physical goods, it hasn’t aged very well in the digital realm. As a result, consumers have been forced to endure awkward DRM implementations, limited availability of digital content and higher prices for media services.
As the top media conglomerates have sought to seize more and more control over the distribution of their products, they’ve shifted from a world where you have the ability to “own” your media, to one where you only have the option to “license” your content.
For a lot of consumers, this distinction may not seem important, but it has profound implications on the future of digital entertainment. Since firms aren’t allowed to buy products at a wholesale price and rent them to multiple consumers, they’ve been forced to negotiate agreements one by one. This is a costly and time intensive process that has limited how quickly media can migrate online. It has also given the media conglomerates monopolistic control over prices. Instead of being forced to compete in an open environment, they are able to take their ball and go home, when they haven’t liked the terms and conditions that innovators offer them.
The result of this transition from ownership to licensing has increased costs for consumers even beyond the price of media. Take for example, the various hardware devices that we’ve seen released over the last five years. If you want to watch digital copies of old movies and TV shows, you can do it through Netflix, but only if it’s on a device that has a business relationship with them. When Sony decided to release a digital copy of Cloudy with a chance of meatballs at the same time the movie was in the theaters, consumers could only participate on select Sony TVs.
If you prefer to watch new releases from Apple’s iTunes store, you’ll need to buy an AppleTV to easily watch that content on your TV. If you want to watch a DivX file that you purchased from CinemaNow, you’ll need to illegally hack your AppleTV or purchase a DivX certified device instead. It’s fantastic that consumers have the ability to record HD cable TV through TiVo, but if you subscribe to AT&T or Dish Networks, you’ll need additional (proprietary) hardware to decode their signals.
While many of these businesses have come a long way towards opening up their systems and fulfilling the digital dream, they’ve all been limited by what content holders allow. As a result, consumers must face a digital minefield where DRM and file formats are used to limit what you can do with the content that you’ve paid for.
As we continue to move forward into the digital world, I think it’s important that consumers shouldn’t have to abandon the first sale protections that have served us so well over the last century. What I propose is a new set of rules that would allow media companies to control their prices, but would also give consumers (and businesses) a way to move past some of these restrictions.
While the DMCA has been a mixed blessing for tech companies and consumers, it is in desperate need of an update (and one that isn’t written by the lobbyists.) For example, currently, it’s illegal for consumers (or businesses) to circumvent DRM, even if consumers are being harmed by the DRM. This has led to situations where people who have purchased media, later lost access to those rights because a provider went out of business. Situations, where companies are unable to offer lifetime licenses in the cloud, because of exclusivity clauses in contracts with pay TV channels.
What I purpose is that if media companies want DMCA protection for their content, it should come with strings attached. In crafting new rules for a modern first sale doctrine, I would require content owners to set a wholesale price that all businesses would be allowed to buy content at. They could still require minimum purchases sizes and would have complete control over what they wanted to charge for that content, but they shouldn’t be allowed to sell a license at one price to one company and then exploit another company for political reasons.
What this would do is create a level playing field for all of the digital retailers. If UMG wants to charge $50 for a download, they would have the right to do this, but they couldn’t favor one vendor over another and they couldn’t punish innovators for being successful or passing on value to the consumer. This would also bring welcome competition to the pay TV market because media companies wouldn’t be able to play MSO’s off of each other.
For example, I’d love to be able to see every NFL game each season, but I can’t unless I’m willing to subscribe to DirecTV for service. Instead of making consumers fight and choose over exclusive content, everyone should be given fair access to that content. If cable companies don’t want to pay the price of admission, they would be less competitive with consumers. The end result would be more demand for NFL content by consumers and more competition for their dollars. If we allow media companies to continue with exclusive content in the digital realm, it will only makes it more expensive for everyone.
I also think that if the media wants to continue to have DMCA restrictions on their DRM, that they shouldn’t be allowed to use that DRM to discriminate between hardware partners. It’s great that I’ve got the ability to record HDTV on my TiVo, but since cablecards don’t work with satellite or U-verse, it essentially gives Comcast a monopoly on pay television for TiVo households.
As a result, Comcast is able to provide abusive cablecard support without having to worry about competition. If they knew that they had to actually compete for the $50 – $200 a month that they charge, it would encourage them to provide better service and to continue to innovate, (even if consumers decide not to use Comcast’s equipment.) Instead we’ve seen cable companies limit the ability for consumers to take their programs on the go and prevent consumers from accessing VOD services on DVRs that aren’t rented from them, all without having to worry about repercussions.
The same is true for digital downloads. If Apple wants to use DRM to help protect their content partners, they should be allowed to, but not at the expense of consumers. If other hardware manufacturers want to build support for iTunes’ product they should be allowed to license the DRM (at cost) from Apple. This would prevent Apple from offering exclusive downloads that lock consumers into their own hardware ecosystem. The end result would be more devices that could play Apple content and more competition among set top box manufacturers. This competition would cause prices to drop and would encourage Apple and others to be innovative with the features and services that they offer to their customers.
While some may be content to let the media industry continue to grow inside of these walled gardens, I’d like to see a world where someone can legally purchase media and play it on any device that they want to. By creating new laws to help better regulate the abuses of our current licensing system, consumers, businesses and the online video industry as a whole, would be allowed to flourish across many different platforms. Instead of being forced to buy the same content over and over and over again, consumers would be allowed to license their media under fair and reasonable conditions.]]>
See larger view of chart here
While old school media types like to insist that content is king, when it comes to viewing said content, the format and media player can make a big difference in the quality of the user experience. With new options seeming to crop up everyday, I wanted to take a look at a few of the most popular media players (and video destinations) to determine which one is the best for consumers. While individual results may vary, here is the criteria I used to evaluate each one.
With so many different formats out there, it’s important that your top media player has robust support. Since consumers shouldn’t have to scour the web to add additional functionality, I did not include any plugins that consumers could use to add greater support. Of all the players listed, the VLC clearly won this category. Whether you’re trying to watch Quicktime movies or play a VOB file, if VLC can’t handle the codec, you probably shouldn’t be trying to play it to begin with. The clear loser in this category was the Netflix Media player. While I have no complaints about the quality of their stream, the DRM restrictions and the requirement for downloading the Silverlight plugin, makes their web player pretty limited.
Ability to Stream Online
When digital movies first came out, you used to have to wait a couple hours for your file to download. With the introduction of streaming support, consumers no longer have to wait more than a few seconds in order to get access to that content. While most video players are able to support this functionality, I felt that Netflix was the clear winner for this category. Not only do their video streams take into account your bandwidth to reduce buffering issues, but they also seem to have the highest video quality when streaming content. The clear loser in this category was the VLC player. While technically, there are ways to use it to stream torrent files while downloading, for the most part the VLC player is designed strictly for offline media.
Ability to Play Offline
A lot of people don’t think that this feature is very important, but as someone who commutes an hour per day by train, being able to view my videos offline is just as important as being able to stream them. Once again, the VLC Player takes top honors due to their ability to handle high definition files and the robustness of their offline support. While Amazon, Netflix and YouTube don’t allow you to easily save files on your laptop, because they offer hardware support, they get a free pass on this one. Hulu on the other hand, ranks at the bottom of this list because they don’t allow consumers to watch a movie unless it’s on an internet connected computer screen.
In order to create a more cinematic experience, a few media companies have started to incorporate dimmer technology into their players. While Hulu does allow users to black out distractions manually, they don’t do it automatically. DivX on the other hand, will slowly darken the screen outside of your video, to help better focus on what your watching. This really is neat technology and something that I hope will catch on. Since none of the other media players include this functionality, it’s a tie for last place on this one.
Disable Screen Saver
Few things are more annoying than being totally immersed in a film and then BAM, all of a sudden your viewing experience is interrupted by your screensaver popping up. While users can always disable this themselves, it’s easy to forget to do this and cumbersome for media companies to expect them to. DivX, Windows Media Player, Amazon and VLC all take top honors for ensuring a seamless experience. Netflix finishes in a close second place, in part because I’ve noticed that their software will sometimes cause the media toolbar to pop-up when the screensaver tries to activate. At the bottom of this list is Hulu, who actually has the gall to request that their users disable their screensavers themselves, instead of helping to automate this experience.
High Definition Support
While a lot of people advertise high definition support, not all HD is created equally. As broadband pipes continue to get fatter, the ability to support larger and/or more advance compression algorithms is becoming a critical differentiator between various media players. The top honors in this category goes to VLC and DivX for supporting the MKV/H.264 format. The worst player is Real Media who may have pioneered video on the web during dial-up days, but hasn’t aged very well.
One Click Full Screen
While all of the media players reviewed allow for full screen support, some players make it easier for consumers to jump in and out of this experience. Making someone hunt around for a tiny button to maximize their video, just isn’t as friendly as letting them double click on their screen and instantly be able to see the full picture. Amazon, CinemaNow, DivX and Windows Media all make it easy for you to do this. Quicktime on the other hand, actually makes consumers pay money in order to get this functionality . . .
Consumers used to have to burn their movies to DVD if they wanted to play it on the big screen, but over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of connected devices that will allow you to easily transfer content to your television. The winner in this category is clearly Netflix. Not only have their pioneered this particular field, but they’ve been able to strike agreements with a wide range of consumer electronic companies. Whether you own a DVR or a video game console, they’ve set the gold standard for watching internet video beyond the monitor. The worst offender is Hulu. Not only are they limited to the web, but they’ve actually fought attempts by innovators like Boxee, to bring their content to the TV set. While their studio owners may have good reasons for trying to keep consumers from cutting the cord, such an anti-consumer stance will only hurt them in the long run.
Subscription, Pay-Per-View or Free Content
With so many different services offering different forms of content, it’s made life pretty difficult for the modern digital consumer. If you want to view new releases, you have to visit Apple, CinemaNow or Amazon. If you want content that doesn’t charge you to experiment, then a subscription to Netflix is the best way to go. If you’re looking for free content, then you should consider Hulu or VLC. While no one seems to have figured out a perfect way to consolidate all three features at once, CinemaNow has done the best job of offering consumers flexibility when it comes to how you want to pay for content. While they don’t offer much in the way of free or ad supported content, they do allow you to rent, purchase or subscribe to various digital packages.
While it’s hard to say that any one media player is THE best, my recommendation for consumers would be a combination of Netflix and the VLC player. Both provide an excellent user experience, as well as high definition support and while your options may be limited on Netflix, they’ve done a good job of integrating their video streams beyond the computer and into a larger hardware eco-system.]]>
Many investors tend to focus on large well established companies, but I’ve always had a penchant for small cap stocks. It could be my masochistic tendencies, but I prefer the risk/reward of a long shot, over companies who already dominate their market. Typically, my investment style has been to seek out strong brands that have fallen out of favor with the market and then wait for their fortunes to improve. Sometimes this involves waiting for years, sometimes it involves taking a complete loss and sometimes I get lucky and other firms step in and buy them out or bid up the price. Since a few of my readers have inquired about what sorts of things I look for in an investment, I thought I’d present a list of 25 small cap stocks that I currently have my eye on. Most of the data has been taken from Yahoo! finance as of 1/26/2010, so it’s probably a good idea to double check the numbers.
1-800-Flowers (Market Cap = $136.47 million Ticker: FLWS) – Every since United Online purchased FTD, 1-800-Flowers seems to have lost market share, but despite their wilting fortunes, they represent a strong brand in a market with limited competition. After cutting operating expenses by $50 million in the second half of 09 and with Valentine’s day just around the corner, I wouldn’t count this one down and out.
Audiovox (Market Cap = $151.26 million Ticker: VOXX) – Despite having booked over a half a billion in consumer electronic sales over the last year, Audiovox doesn’t seem to get a lot of respect outside of the consumer electronic’s industry. With $361 million in shareholder equity, the firm is trading at half of their book value. While the company has lost over $50 million in the last 12 months, these losses are largely attributed to one time charges. With the firm having hit profitability in the last 3 quarters, a turnaround may be in sight for patient investors.
Bank Of The Internet (Market Cap = $87.61 million Ticker: BOFI) – While many local California banks made some pretty terrible loans during the housing boom, BofI was considerably more conservative with their assets. The market may have discounted them along with the rest of the financial community, but a closer look at their balance sheet suggests that this may be a hidden gem in all the rubble. With a charter that allows them to operate in every US state, there is a lot of potential for this little known company. With some of the highest interest rates on cash deposits, they’ve been able to attract deposits during a period where most banks have seen their customer base contract. For fiscal year 2007, they had revenue of $45.7 million, in 08′ they booked $64.8 and in 09′ they had $81.1 million. While I’m no longer a customer of the bank, from past experience I can personally attest, that they have the best customer service of any financial institution that I’ve ever worked with.
Big Band Networks (Market Cap = $205.92 million Ticker: BBND) – Since it’s debut in 2007, this content delivery network has seen their stock price fluctuate between $3 a share to $20.44. The company did lose $11 million in the last quarter, but had they not been investing in research and development they would have generated a small profit. While they do owe approximately $70 million in debt, with $161 million in cash and short term investments, they should have the stamina to make it through the market’s bust. Sitting at the epicenter of online video movement, there’s a lot of potential for this Silicon Valley company.
Calamos (Market Cap = $237.42 Ticker: CLMS) – When it comes to convertible bond investing, Calamos has set the gold standard for fund managers. While revenue is down over 20% since the market collapsed in 2008, I don’t believe that this is proper justification for trading at less than 1 times their trailing 12 month sales. With a strong management team, a fantastic brand and their recent return to profitability, I think that the company is undervalued. With their latest dividend reflecting a 2.4% yield, I’m willing to wait for their turnaround.
ClickSoftware Technologies (Market Cap = $200.88 million Ticker: CKSW) – ClickSoftware helps companies better manage their workforce. Since the beginning of 2009, they’ve seen their stock rise almost 400%, so they’re not exactly a secret. Nonetheless, this Israeli company has demonstrated some pretty impressive metrics. In fiscal 06′ they had $32.4 million in revenue, in 07′ this rose to $40 million. In 08′ they recorded $52.3 million in sales and for 2009, they are expected to report approximately $61 million. With the company having made three small acquisitions in the past year and realizing 67% gross margins, it would appear that they have a bright future ahead of them. With $48.6 million in current assets and only $22.2 liabilities, they should be able to survive for a very long time, especially if the continue to remain profitable.
DivX Inc. (Market Cap = $180.25 Million Ticker: DivX) – After making a huge splash in 07′ and hitting a billion dollar market cap following their IPO, DivX has been a huge disappointment for many investors. While there are long term questions about their business model and management has given no indication that revenues won’t continue to drop, with $139 million in cash and short term investments and only $25.6 million in liabilities, the stock is certainly priced at a bargain. Given their unique position in the digital media space, I can think of a number of large competitors who wouldn’t mind taking advantage of the market’s short-sightedness.
Double-Take Software (Market Cap $216.34 million Ticker: DBTK) – Even before cloud computing was a buzz word, Double-Take was working towards building remote solutions for businesses. After seeing their revenues rise over 50% between 2006 – 2008, the company experience some turbulence in 09′. For the first 9 months of the year, they recorded revenue of $60.4 million, compared to $71.3 million for the similar time period in 08′. Nonetheless, when you consider that they are still booking a gross profit of 89%, there is a lot here to like. With financial and insurance companies representing some of their biggest customers, it may take time for them to return to their highs, but with nearly 4 times as many assets as they have liabilities, the company should have no problem surviving.
Geek.net (Market Cap = $77.41 million Ticker: LNUX) – As a self professed Geek I may be a bit biased on this one, but with the company trading at just $10 million above their book value, I think that this could be an extremely attractive acquisition for the right partner. Through sites like Slashdot, Sourceforge and ThinkGeek, they’ve been able to build an audience of over 40 million unique visitors each month. When you consider that their core audience tends to be primarily male developers with a lot of disposable income, I’m not surprised that their revenue has grown despite a collapse in the online ad markets. Recent insider selling and the lack of profitability may be cause for concern, but I believe that their core brands are too valuable to be trading at such a steep discount.
IncrediMail (Market Cap = $77 million Ticker: MAIL) – Since hitting their bottom in late 2008, IncrediMail’s stock before has been nothing short of incredible. With the stock up over 400%, there’s room for it to take a breather, but based on their most recent dividend, investors are earning an approximate 10% yield. While it’s always possible that they could quit paying back returns to their shareholders, with revenues up 25% for the first 9 months of 09, the trend is headed in the right direction.
Jackson Hewitt (Market Cap = $101.27 million Ticker: JTX) – They say nothing is certain in life except death and taxes and given Jackson Hewitt’s past sins, it’s fair to say that both may still be in store for this company’s future, but with the stock trading at 10% of past valuations, there’s also room for an impressive “dead cat bounce”. After getting busted for issuing problematic refund anticipation loans there’s an unknown liability that hangs over this firm, but with the company trading at 0.40 times their 12 months sales, the risk/reward is attractive for the troubled tax preparer.
Internap (Market Cap = $247.71 million Ticker: INAP) – Like many of the CDN players, Internap has seen their stock price hit with a buzzsaw as investors re-evaluated the long term potential of internet delivery. While Akamai may have a firm grasp on this market, I believe that there’s a lot of untapped value in this company. With over $250 million in revenue over the past year and over a billion dollars worth of tax losses, this small little video provider is ripe for consolidation.
Lasercard (Market Cap = $75.85 million Ticker: LCRD) – After a history of losses, this Silicon Valley security company appears to have turned the corner with their business model. During 2009, they blew through their net operating losses and have once again begun paying taxes on their profits. While their revenue tends to be concentrated with a few customers, recent contract wins with the governments of Hungary and Angola should provide some much needed diversification over the next year. Their leverage is a little bit higher than I’d like to see, but with a successful underwriting early last year and a bright future for the global security market, they should be OK over the near term.
Lojack (Market Cap $74.57 million Ticker: LOJN) – Caught between the wrong end of a patent lawsuit and the collapse of the auto market, Lojack has been absolutely hammered over the last few years. With the stock down more than 80% from their all-time high, it would be easy to write this one off as a tax loss. Despite the challenges that they’ve faced though, I believe that their unique technology and brand can easily be ported into other industries and that their recent losses will only prove to be temporary. With sticky contracts with law enforcement agencies and the potential to once again realize strong earnings, I think the company has been undervalued by investors.
Motorcar Parts of America (Market Cap = $68.22 million Ticker: MPAA) – Despite their ticker symbol, MPAA doesn’t have anything to do with the entertainment industry. They’re a small firm that sells plain old boring alternators and starters for small trucks. While the auto industry has seen new car sales eviscerated over the last few years, it should provide an opportunity for companies who build replacement parts. With their current liabilities exceeding their current assets, it may be wise to wait until they raise more money before proceeding, but with the company trading at approximately half of their trailing 12 month sales, the market seems to have priced in the doom and gloom already.
OpenTV (Market Cap = $162.92 million Ticker: OPTV) – With the Kudelski group having already agreed to pay $1.55 per share, you won’t get rich off of investing in this set top box manufacturer, but there could be an arbitrage opportunity for those looking for a short term investment. Assuming that it takes them another 1 – 3 months to close the transaction, investors could expect an annualized yield of 10.75% – 3.22% respectively. While these transactions always carry the risk that something could derail them, I’d be surprised if the deal doesn’t get completed in the first quarter.
Primedia (Market Cap = $126.26 million Ticker: PRM) – From a high of $175 per share during the .com heyday, to it’s current price under $3 a share, it’s fair to say that the last decade hasn’t been very kind to Primedia investors. Despite their past performance though (and huge question marks about the ad market), there’s still life in this old dog yet. Over the last 12 months, they’ve been able to pull in approximately $270 million in ad revenue and while this is less than what they earned in 2008, it does suggest that their revenues are starting to stabilize. With an impressive portfolio of .com properties, once the ad market returns, Primedia is an a better position to recover than most.
Rentrak (Market Cap = $167.97 million Ticker: Rent) – DVD sales may be in a freefall, but Rentrak has done a good job of managing this decline. The company not only helps to distribute packaged media, but also sells industry data to the major studios. While on one hand, the current business trends would appear to be working against the firm, the decline in disc based media also makes that intelligence even more valuable. With the company trading at less than 2 times sales, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a firm like Nielsen try to buy them in an attempt to bolster their own portfolio.
Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory (Market Cap = $51.65 million Ticker: RMCF) – While this pick violates a rule I have about never investing in restaurants, I’m willing to make an exception when it comes to chocolate With $17.8 million in assets and only $3.7 million in debt, this small specialty retailer has a remarkably clean balance sheet. Sales may be down year over year, but thanks to a partnership with Cold Stone Creamery, there is potential for growth. Given the strength of their brand name, I could think of quite a few companies who would mind owning their brand.
Smith and Wesson (Market Cap = $235.94 million Ticker: SWHC) – Over the past two years Smith and Wesson investors probably feel like they’ve been shot in the gut. Despite revenue going through the roof, they’ve been sidelined by one blunder after another. With a messy balance sheet and company officials facing charges of bribery, this one may be dead on arrival, but with over $300 million in revenue and a terrific brand name I wouldn’t hesitate to take a second look once things get straightened out.
Sonic Solutions (Market Cap =$232.46 million Ticker: SNIC) – For a long time, Sonic seemed to be the little engine that just couldn’t. With a number of software products focused on digital media, success always seemed like it was just over the horizon, but delays from studio partners and the decline in demand for their DVD services put a crimp in their stock’s performance. After seeing a rebound of over 400% in 2009, investors may be setting themselves up for another disappointment, but recent agreements with Blockbuster Video and a successful stock underwriting late last year, have removed concerns about their near term future. While I still have doubts about their ability to execute, there’s no denying that the Roxio and CinemaNow brands have value.
SORL Auto Parts (Market Cap = $205.64 million Ticker: SORL) – Chinese companies always make me a bit nervous because it’s hard to trust their financials, but given China’s investment in infrastructure, there’s a lot of upside to the industry that SORL operates in. As a supplier of auto parts for Chinese trucks and buses, they’ve been immune to the issues facing the US auto sector. With assets representing more than 4 times their debt, they should be well positioned to capitalize on China’s own stimulus plan.
Spark Networks (Market Cap = $62.77 million Ticker: LOV) – Every since I made a bundle when IAC bought out UDate, I’ve been looking for an internet dating site to court. While I may have missed the bottom when it comes to Spark Networks, I’m still attracted to their business model. Revenue, net income and their member base have both been heading the wrong direction, but if their new Spark.com domain can take off, there’s still a lot to love.
SRS Labs (Market Cap = $98.73 million Ticker: SRSL) – Compared to heavyweights like Dolby, SRS is a 98 pound weakling in the audio technology industry, but don’t let their size fool you about the quality of their technology. Recently the company announced that their partners have shipped over 30 million
certified TruVolume devices. Perhaps even more impressive though is that the company operates at 99% gross margins. With their technology able to prevent the sound fluctuations between your programs and commercial breaks, I see a bright future ahead. When you also consider that the company has over $50 million in assets and less than $3.5 million in debt, I think it’s a steal at their current valuation.
Stamps.com (Market Cap = $140.77 million Ticker: STMP) – Over the last few years, Stamps.com’s revenue has been more or less stagnant, but with limited competitors they should be able to maintain a pretty good hold on their niche market. With the recent growth in home based businesses, the company is poised to capitalize on FedEx’s losses. With a balance sheet heavy on assets and light on liabilities all it would take is a dividend or a share buyback to make this stock attractive.]]>
With consumers clearly wanting to access content online, one would think that HBO would be the first in line to embrace this trend, but because of their status quo, they’ve chosen to fight progress instead of helping to usher in the digital age.
Over the last two years, a group of digital and traditional media companies have formed an impressive collective known as the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE). This diverse group of firms includes firms ranging in diversity from Sony to DivX. While each company has their own agenda, the goal of the group is to try and create a media framework that allows consumers to purchase downloadable media and to play it on a wide range of consumer electronic devices.
While I do think that there are some problems with their proposed implementation, I’m also pragmatic enough to see this consortium as our best chance of furthering the internet video revolution. To date, media companies have fought digitization tooth and nail, but this co-op between Hollywood and the Silicon Valley could create an environment where more new release content is made available to the public.
Anyone whose used Netflix’s Watch Instantly program knows that there is a ton of content from the 1980′s, but very few titles from the last decade. One of the biggest reasons for this, is that companies like HBO have used their vast financial resources to outbid them and other digital players for these films. With studios scared to death of upsetting deep pocket partners like HBO, it’s created an environment where consumers must either pirate recent content, set an appointment to see TV or stick to watching it on a disc.
While, HBO has made some of their content available through Comcast’s TV anywhere initiative, it’s only includes their weakest titles and you must be a cable subscriber to get access to the content. Contrast this to Showtime’s digital experiments and it’s clear that HBO is standing in the way of progress.
Like Netflix’s Watch Instantly platform, DECE has proposed a system where consumers can store their media content in the cloud and then stream it whenever (and more importantly wherever) they want to view the film. Yet, according to the industry trade publication, The Wrap (via Inside Redbox), HBO isn’t a fan of this system and is actively trying to block it’s implementation. Since they insist on legal language in their contracts that prevent consumers from accessing digital content while it’s playing on their channel, it’s possible that you could purchase a film and then be blocked from seeing it while it’s playing on HBO.
Imagine paying a steep premium to see a recently released film and then being told that you can’t watch it on certain dates, just because HBO is afraid that you might not subscribe to their channel. Clearly, this isn’t in the interests of consumers and yet HBO is using their financial resources to try and create this very scenario.
“Paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year for output deals with Warner, Fox and Universal, HBO currently restricts these studios from distributing their films digitally during its exclusive pay-TV window. Typically, that window starts six months after a film debuts on DVD and extends for 18 months. It already has presented itself as a challenge for established download sellers including iTunes and Netflix.”
HBO is free to run their business anyway that they like, but I believe that policies that are downright hostile to consumers should not go unpunished. Because of this, I’m asking HBO subscribers to call your cable company and cancel the channel. I know that this may mean giving up some great content, but if HBO starts to feel the sting from a consumer backlash, perhaps they’ll rethink their position and start to embrace the digital revolution. Currently, only 3% of the entertainment industry’s revenue come from online, but if just 3% of HBO’s subscribers were to cancel service, it would have a profound effect on the company’s profitability.
For too long, consumers have been abused by these exclusivity agreements and if you sit back and allow them to walk all over you, then you’re only part of the problem. Instead of rewarding an outdated analog business model, we need to be demanding that studios and their partners join the 21st century and make their content available online.]]>
Recently, Paramount announced that they were going to be distributing content on USB sticks. At the time, they didn’t say what format it would be in and even on DivX’s conference call there was no mention of this realization of their strategic vision, but Electric Pig is reporting that the Paramount movies will in fact be encoded in DivX.
With only 20,000 memory sticks for sale and at a price of approximately $33 US, Paramount is still clearly in the testing phase, but the fact that they choose DivX demonstrates the clear advantage that DivX has over all of their other digital competitors. They have the only real solution for brick and mortar retailers.
If Paramount tried to do this with a proprietary solution, it wouldn’t work because it wouldn’t give them a way to get that movie to the television. They could try to do it with Apple, but Apple doesn’t have the same reach to the TV, especially in Europe where this is being launched.
To date, most of my thoughts on DivX’s courtship of Hollywood have centered on the futility of trying to win enough support, so that online retailers could adopt their technology for digital distribution. If you can’t get a Disney or UMG to license DivX’s format, it makes it tough for someone like Netflix or Blockbuster to use their codec even with the other 80% of the content owners on board.
The beauty of the USB distribution strategy is that they won’t need 100% industry support in order to move their plans forward. Shelf space is limited as is, all they need is for a single studio to want to take advantage of this and there will be more than enough titles to tempt you with while you are waiting in line at the cash register.
Now I know what many of you are thinking, movies on USB are pretty lame. When Paramount made their announcement, there were more than a few commenters who zinged them for being out of touch with current trends. While there’s no doubt that the world will go digital, I also realize that the major studios aren’t going to abandon the retail partners that deliver the majority of their profits each and every year. It may end up becoming super easy to buy movies straight from your home, but if you have millions of consumers visiting a store each day, you can bet that the studios will want to reach those customers where they are hanging out. The shelf space is too valuable to be abandoned.
DivX on USB also opens up new business models for the studios. Instead of selling three DVDs, they could package all the Godfather films on one stick to justify a higher price tag or they could offer an entire season of television on an 8GB stick instead. If a retailer can sell something for twice the price, they will take smaller margins from the studios for the larger transaction. With the studios under pressure to develop new revenue streams, this will be too tempting for them not to exploit.
There’s no doubt that DVD is moving to Blu-Ray, but DivX memory sticks allow their Hollywood partners to reach consumers who may not have upgraded to high def just yet. With the industry in a state of flux, being able to sell a device that can be read by any computer and over 200 million devices gives DivX broad reach when it comes to the world of disconnected playback.
Paramount may be approaching this market cautiously, but I think people have greatly underestimated the size and the impact that USB films will have. It may not be cutting edge technology, but there are too many powerful companies who need it to succeed for it to fail. At the birth of this industry, it’s encouraging to see Paramount actively supporting their partnership with DivX, instead of just taking a licensing payment and then ignoring what their technology can offer.
USB movies won’t necessarily solve DivX problems with their shifting business model, but it does underscore the significance of the platform that DivX has built. As much as DivX is threatened by the obsolescence of the DVD, they can also benefit from the format shift. So far, they haven’t done a very good job of managing this transition, but this deal proves that even an old dog can learn new tricks. If retailers start asking for DivX as a weapon against Blockbuster and Netflix, other studios might also understand the benefits of using open and popular technology to make more money.]]>
Over the next decade, it’s clear that things will improve, but I also worry that we’ll repeat some of the same mistakes. As the industry moves past early adopters and into the mainstream, it will have a profound change on the entertainment industry.
One of the biggest drivers of that mainstream adoption will be the rise of the internet television. A year ago, it was hard to find them outside of tech events, but television manufacturers have started to embrace the concept and now there’s at least a high end market for internet enabled TV sets. The New York Times, has a good article on this trend as well as some appropriate criticism,
“we’re still a long way from being able to order any movie we want to watch whenever we want to watch it. Film studios are loath to release what they perceive will be blockbuster DVDs for digital distribution, for example, until months after release, and there are many more held back by copyright issues and concerns about piracy. And even the movies you can rent digitally from Blockbuster or Amazon are often subject to the dreaded 24-hour window, which means if you don’t finish watching on the same day you started viewing it, you’ll have to pay an additional charge. Still, the option of streaming a movie from anywhere — Netflix, Amazon or whoever — is a major leap forward. It frees viewers from the yoke of the one-store-only approach taken by cable companies and products like Apple TV.”
While I agree that consumers are foolish to enter into one-store arrangements like AppleTV, I also don’t feel like any of the TV manufacturers have differentiated themselves with what they are offering. Whether you’re talking Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sony, Mitsubishi, Sharp or Vizio all of them seem to be going after a small handful of Hollywood partners.
Don’t get me wrong, Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster and Sony all have great content, but in such a tightly controlled eco-system, the consumer doesn’t really have very many options. If you don’t like a restrictive 24 hour window, then you just have to deal with it. There’s also a lot of content that isn’t available on these new services. Whether we’re talking new releases or material that is more appropriate for adult audiences, consumers can’t access it, without some kind of alternative device.
Limiting your audience makes sense if Hollywood is the one buying your televisions, but is a poor strategy to employ when you want consumers to buy your TV sets. At one point I had hoped that DivX would partner with one of the TV makers to give consumers more flexibility, but so far they have struck out when it comes to the connected television. I don’t know why the internet TV has been such a tough nut for DivX to crack, but I suspect that it has something to do with why they have been so hell bent on partnering with Hollywood. The sad part is that in order to win over these studio partners, DivX has already started to ignore their consumers.
Take for example, DivX’s recent acquisition of AnySource Media. Ideally, this software will accelerate DivX’s plans to the TV, but even if they are successful it doesn’t necessary mean that consumers will win. In an article for NewTeeVee, DivX CEO Kevin Hell said that “content partners of the new entity will not be required to offer video in the DivX format, and the platform will support a wide variety of codecs.”
If DivX is truly committed to being “a digital media company that enables consumers to enjoy a high-quality video experience across any kind of device”, then how could they even consider creating a device that doesn’t support the eco-system that their fans have built their entertainment system around? Making such a sacrifice may be seen as necessary, in order to get their piece of the connected television, but it would be self-destructive to their brand and only highlight the sacrifices that they seem willing to make just to be another me too provider of digital content.
Instead of partnering with Hollywood, DivX should be arming consumers so that they have the tools to force content owners to accept a digital revolution. How many TV sets could DivX sell, if they provided support for MegaVideo alone? With over 1% of all internet traffic, they get more hits then Amazon.com, let alone Amazon Video or what if DivX’s software supported free streams from any of the adult websites that regularly appear in the Alexa top 100 listings? People may not want to admit it, but the adult film industry is almost as large of the regular film industry. Samsung may not want to splash a XXX logo on the front of their TVs, but if DivX;) could offer this functionality, I guarantee you that there would be demand for it.
Getting down and dirty with copyright thieves and alternative content providers may not be DivX’s grand ambition, but I’d rather see them comprise their morals in this regard, then to see them knife their own customers and still not end up on any connected televisions. The development of the internet TV is an exciting chapter in the transition to digital, I just hope that consumers don’t get trampled on in the rush to fight over the same old content.]]>
3 good transcripts with background on case to date (1 , 2 , 3 )
It’s been nearly two years since DivX filed their “pre-emptive” lawsuit against Universal music group and so far, there really hasn’t been much to talk about. DivX’s original lawsuit was thrown out after UMG removed the overhanging legal threat against Stage6 by actually filing a suit alleging copyright infringement.
Given the hurry that DivX was in to have this case resolved, one would have thought that consumers would have had a digital betamax decision by now, but once DivX abandoned Stage6, their strategy towards the case took a 180.
With DivX seeking Hollywood approval, I’ve no doubt that they would like nothing more than to sign a content deal and settle the matter with a small token of goodwill. Last November, they tried to reach a settlement with UMG, but UMG seems out for blood on this one. If they were to actually get the $300 million in damages that they are seeking, it would not only bankrupt DivX but would give UMG control over their technology.
While it may still be in UMG’s best interest, not to establish a legal precedent on the DMCA safe harbors, there’s no doubt in my mind, that they’ll try to extract more than a pound of flesh, before they let DivX off the hook on this one.
Over the last year and a half, the case has largely been hung up over petty issues related to discovery. With DivX in stall mode, they tried to ask for a mountain of documentation from UMG. Specifically, they wanted the entire chain of copyright documents for all 2,600 allegations of infringement.
With some songs requiring over 500 pages of contracts, UMG was reluctant to help DivX on a fishing expedition, especially when they have “certificates” that certify their ownership of the works in question.
Meanwhile, UMG wanted to use Audible Magic, in order to detect every instance of copyright infringement on Stage6. DivX understandably wanted to make this harder for them. DivX argued that since UMG failed to use their voodoo technology, while the site was up, they shouldn’t be compelled to power all 750,000 videos back up.
Eventually, they gave UMG an index that let them search for the name of a video and then request a copy from DivX for review.
Of course the problem with this approach is that as anyone who used Stage6 knows, the studio files were never labeled with the proper titles. Search on Stage6 was always pretty terrible and this was made even worse by members trying to hide themselves underground.
Rather then using search, browsing through tags was a much more efficient way to find content Since most visitors were coming from link aggregation sites anyway, it wasn’t all that necessary for the movies to show up in search.
Most of these differences could have been worked out pretty easily, but with DivX trying to let YouTube set the precedent, and with UMG trying to go after the lower hanging Veoh fruit instead, neither party has been very incentivized to move this case forward.
In fact, just last week, both UMG and DivX asked the judge to add on an extra 60 days before they would have to do battle, specifically so Veoh could go first. The judge, who has clearly been frustrated by the petty antics of both parties, finally put his foot down and denied the extension despite both parties being in agreement. Now, Veoh’s case has been pushed back while they wait to see if DivX walks away a free entity or facing an executioner.
Like a man on a mission, the judge has followed up his denial with two rulings, that settle a laundry list of squabbles and should make the rules of engagement crystal clear.
At one point, DivX may have been able to convince the judge to let them have wider access to the copyright records, but after failing to cite a single “widely distributed” modern act, he put an end to this discovery requirement.
Because a healthy part of the legal paperwork is obscured by sealed records, it’s not exactly clear what happened with audible magic, but from the way I read it, it looks like DivX was able to limit UMG to finding the content the same way that users had to. The judge did give UMG access to the search terms, (which will enable them to use the tags in order to find more potential violations), but he didn’t require DivX to turnover the metadata on the files.
DivX wasn’t able to get emails of record label employees, but did get an order for “actual or prospective policies or practices from January 1, 200o to the present.”
As part of their defense, DivX is trying to assert that they put in measures to help prevent copyright abuse. Specifically, they used technology that would prevent the same video from being uploaded, if it had already been subjected to a DMCA notice.
UMG is trying to argue that the copyright violations on Stage6 were so blatant that DivX would have had to have known that infringement was occurring (even if UMG didn’t complain about it first.)
The key issue here, will be whether or not the technology that DivX employed, was considered an “industry standard” for preventing infringement. If they can show that UMG had previously endorsed the technology that they were using, it would make it hard for them to argue that DivX wasn’t taking reasonable steps to prevent pirates from ransacking Stage6.
With the legal maneuvering, finally out of the way, the biggest obstacles to a trial have been removed and we should have a resolution before Christmas.
Of course, if you’re hoping that DivX is going to make a stand for consumers by establishing the legality of video sharing for a site that is all but dead to them, I wouldn’t get your hopes up too high.
DivX and UMG may have failed to reach an agreement last November, but they’ve “tentatively” agreed to go in for couples counseling and have a mediation date scheduled for Sept. 21st.
I don’t know that DivX will be willing to write a big enough check to satisfy the music conglomerate’s greed, but if UMG begins to doubt their case, it wouldn’t be hard to get a little bit of money and a passive admission that they can enforce whatever rule of law they want.
If we do get a trial, it will be a fun one to watch. Here is an estimated schedule based upon the most recent developments in the case.
August 17th – Non-expert discover cutoff/last day to conduct settlement conference
August 18th – 25th – UMG begins depositions of DivX employees and witnesses
Sept 29 – Last day to hear motions
October 26th – witness list is due
Nov 24th – Trial Begins
Dec 10th – Jury reaches verdict
Whether or not DivX will stick to their guns remains a question, but there is finally light (or darkness) at the end of the tunnel. We don’t know how this will get resolved, but it shouldn’t take much longer to find out.]]>
Even though the financial wiz kids over at Engadget, still have TiVo on their “death watch”, I’m beginning to see a much different picture. With 6 quarters of EBITA profitability now under their belt, $200 million in cash (minus the zero in debt on their balance sheet), and partnerships with a significant portion of the DVR market waiting to be implemented and rolled out, it’s no surprise that TiVo has gone from being a small cap child with plenty of dissenters, to an emerging mid cap teenager looking to establish a legacy.
The last ten years may have been characterized by one rumor after another of who TiVo was going to be acquired by next, but the next ten years will be a much different chapter for the little DVR that could.
At the risk of counting my chickens before they hatch, I wanted to kick off the next ten years of innovation by highlighting a few companies that TiVo could use to transition themselves from a niche DVR provider to a diversified corporate conglomerate. Of course there’s no guarantee that TiVo will even get the billion dollars that they are asking for, but it’s still fun to spend imaginary money.
SecuriTiVo – For years TiVo has been dragged into a bare knuckle brawl with cable and satellite companies, just for the right to offer their DVR to their customers. Meanwhile, they are ignoring an important untapped stand alone market that their invention created. The home security business might not be as sexy as HBO, but the DVR has had just as big of an impact on the security industry as it’s had on Hollywood’s outdated business model.
Instead of fooling around with a couple hundred of gigabytes, TiVo should be building multi-terrabyte DVRs that can record several weeks worth of high quality footage. TiVo could also sell a consumer version of the system that connects to the DVR in your living room and allows you to see live security video from your couch.
Not only would a security DVR give TiVo a commercial product to sell, but it would also add important reoccurable monthly revenue from on going security contracts. It would also create an opportunity to add an additional revenue stream from high quality video cameras.
Potential Target = The Brink’s Company (Ticker: BCO) – With a current market cap of $1.36 billion, this top notch security outfit may be a little out of TiVo’s reach, but they could certainly consider a joint venture or pounce on them, if the market starts to get cheap. Either way, a free TiVo with your home security system sounds like a great promotion just waiting to happen.
TiVo Charge Card – In 1939, the US was reeling from an economic depression so Fred Lazarus Jr., the CEO of Federated Dept. stores did two important things for his business. First, he convinced President Roosevelt to change Thanksgiving to the last Thursday of November so that it would extend the Christmas shopping season and then he started offering store credit to anyone who would purchase through him. By giving cash starved consumers access to credit during a tough economic climate, Federated Department stores was seen as a friend and patriot during a dark economic period. The impact from these two decisions helped take the company from a struggling retailer to the Goliath that it is today.
When it comes to couch commerce, TiVo faces a similar opportunity. Currently, when you purchase something through your DVR, TiVo stays out of the transaction. Even if you want to order a pizza with a credit card, you’re not able to, TiVo makes you pay cash This is probably a good thing for home shopping addicts, but works against’s TiVo’s goal of revolutionizing the advertising business. If they want couch commerce to actually succeed, they must make it easier for consumers to make an actual purchase.
The beauty of a TiVo charge card is that it could be linked directly to your TiVo account once and then capture every purchase after that. If you wanted to rent a movie from Jaman or buy a pair of flip flops from Amazon, it would be the same process and simply require password authorization.
TiVo could also offer discounts on DVR service for balance transfers or for customers who carry larger balances. Extending credit during tough economic times might seem risky, but TiVo needs a better payment solution sooner than later. By putting themselves in a position to become the paypal of television, TiVo could lower the barriers of entry for advertisers, in exchange for a cut of every transaction.
Potential Target = Bank of the Internet (Ticker: BOFI) With a current market cap of $50 million, TiVo could easily acquire this sleepy little bank from San Diego, CA and immediately serve a national audience. Not only would they have the infrastructure in place to start offering credit card services, but TiVo would be picking up a high quality loan portfolio in the process. BOFI’s conservative approach to lending may have hurt investors during the boom years, but when the credit bust hit, it proved that there was wisdom in their prudence.
SlingTiVo – When Sling first introduced place shifting to the DVR community, TiVo choose not to implement the functionality directly into their software. My guess is that they were concerned that a feature enjoyed by the fringe, could spark a lawsuit with the media giants, who’ve had their business model disrupted by TiVo’s fast fowarding powers.
Holding off on introducing place shifting may have been the right choice when the technology was still young, but internet video has changed a lot since Sling was founded. While the legality of placeshifting still hasn’t been affirmed by the courts, even Sony is selling a placeshifting device to their customers. With placeshifting starting to reach a more mainstream audience, now is the time for TiVo to introduce this capability to their customers.
Potential Target = Echostar (Ticker: SATS) – Without the ability to manufactuer DVRs for Dish customers, Echostar may find that their business isn’t worth all that much. With a market cap of $1.31 billion, TiVo could offer an olive branch to Dish, in exchange for the Echostar/DVR side of the business. Frankly, I’d rather see them bankrupt Dish and buyout the satellite business in a vulture sale, but the poetic justice alone makes this one worth consideration.
TiVoPages – One of the problems with TiVo’s current advertising setup is that they are kind of taking a walled garden approach to selling the ads. There are strict requirements on the content allowed on the service and only certain agencies are really given access to the inventory. This may be necessary to butter the toast of their Stop Watch customers, but it also limits what TiVo can become.
Why not make it so that anyone can upload a video ad to TiVo and inexpensively reach the TiVo audience based on screening criteria similar to Google’s Adsense program? I may be a small business, but if the costs are low and I can target local viewers or people who fit a certain demographic profile, I’d advertise through TiVo in a heartbeat. TiVo should play to their strengths and become a video Craigslist for the time shifted generation.
Potential Target = Razorfish – Two years ago, Microsoft paid $6 billion for the company. Today they are rumored to be looking for $600 – $700 million to spin off the ad agency. Owning an agency might ruffle some feathers with some StopWatch customers, but Razorfish would give TiVo the infrastructure they need to their take their advertising program, beyond major, one time, national partnerships. By better implementing their advertising programs, TiVo could create a platform where local businesses could reach local viewers in their markets.
DigiTiVo – TiVo may be one of a handful of solutions for letting consumers watch digital video on their televisions, but they could go a long way towards improving their current implementation. One of the problems with trying to watch various internet video types on your TiVo is that TiVo needs to transcode the video before it will play on your screen.
Currently, customers can either hack their machines for free access or they can pay $25 for a copy of TiVo Desktop plus. While I don’t expect TiVo to support every flavor of codec out there, it would be nice if they threw their support behind a standard and tried to come up with a more seemless experience for their customers. It may be too late for them to get a piece of Adobe or to crack their way into Quicktime or Silverlight, but there are still smaller codec companies that could help.
Potential Target = DivX – (Ticker: DIVX) with a market cap of $175 million, TiVo could easily afford to buy the digital video company and use their contacts to adopt more of a licensing approach to the DVR business. By taking advantage of the profits from the codec business, TiVo could help to subsidize more robust codec support for their subscribers.
HuluTiVo – One of TiVo’s advantages is that they’ve managed to remain neutral despite competing in some pretty tough battlegrounds. In the past, TiVo has taken on the media giants, but now may be the time for them to lay down their arms and secure a stake in the next generation of television.
Love it or hate it, the Hulu cartel has been able to establish themselves as a major broadcaster in the narrowcast world. To date, other media companies have been reluctant to share Hulu on the television, but with TiVo’s relatively small subscriber base, they could be seen as a safe testing ground for experimentation. By implementing direct response ads into the actual programming, TiVo and the major media companies could finally benefit from working together instead of against each other.
A Hulu ownership position might make it harder for TiVo to sign more deals like UnBox and WatchNow, but I think if they stayed focused on advertising supported programming, they could still attract plenty of premium and subscription based partners.
Potential Target = Hulu – The company has raised $130 million to date at a billion dollar valuation, but with the market being down its hard to know what it would be valued at now. Given the “digital dimes” that Hulu is producing, one could argue that the weak market should offer new investors a discount, but one could also argue that given Hulu’s growth, a billion may be cheap. It’d be hard to convince Hulu’s current owners to sell or even innovate to the television, but I know more than a few TiVo customers who would love to see Hulu show up on their Now Playing lists.
NinTiVo – Even with TiVo’s new found purchasing power, buying out one of the three video game companies simply isn’t going to happen, so TiVo would either need to invest in building out their own billion dollar console or license one from Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft to create a killer DVR/PC/Console compatible platform. With three major companies fighting for a highly competitive industry, a partnership with TiVo would be highly sought after and could at least give them a seat at the negotiation table.
Potential Target = Take Two Interactive (Ticker: TTWO) – Take Two’s bad boy Grand Theft image wouldn’t compliment TiVo’s KidZone initiatives, but it would give them access to an instant powerhouse in the video game industry. With a market cap at $690 million, TiVo could easily acquire the company for a billion and tone down the bad boy image. With an exclusive on several of the hottest games out there, a partnership with a major console manufactuerer and a beefed up TiVo that acts more like a high end gaming PC/DVR combo then a VCR, TiVo could create a big splash with the gaming crowd.
Hotel TiVofornia – One of the biggest reasons why TiVo isn’t more popular with consumers is because it’s hard to know how much you’re missing until you’re actually a customer. Getting someone to buy a DVR in the first place is tough, but getting them to give it up is even tougher. What TiVo needs is an easy and cost effective way to introduce their DVR to the masses.
Whenever I stay at a hotel, the television is awful. If a national hotel chain were to partner with TiVo to let me schedule programing while I’m there, I know that they would become my default choice when I traveled. To date, TiVo has dabbled with these types of programs, but with the extra money they could kick this program into hyperdrive. By building out more support for hotel rooms, TiVo could secretly expose millions of travelers to a commercial for their DVR without travelers ever realizing that it could be the last ad that they’d ever have to tune into.
Potential Target = Boyd’s (Ticker: BYD) – With the Vegas economy still dealing with the after shocks of the credit crisis, Boyd’s market cap has fallen to $760 million. With a little bit of elbow grease and some slick marketing, TiVo could buy the hotel and pick up a casino as a bonus. With a Vegas style monument to the DVR, TiVo could let you gamble from your hotel DVR. You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.
TiVoTube – Over the last few years, a lot of people have mocked Google for their $1.6 billion acquisition of YouTube, but in retrospect, it’s starting to look like a brilliant acquisition by the search giant. Not only did Google continue to expand their dominance on the web, but they picked up a major future broadcaster in the process.
It’s too late for TiVo to get their slice of YouTube, but it doens’t mean that other video sites wouldn’t be a good fit for them.
Potential Target = Dailymotion.com – With TiVo looking to expand DVR service into Europe and Asia, Dailymotion could very well be the beachhead they need with international audiences. This one would probably have the biggest risk associated with it because of the hosting costs and potential copyright headaches, but with Dailymotion having only raised $43 million so far, TiVo could probably offer $300 million and set aside the other $700 million to figure out the business model.
1-800-TiVo-Fon – I wish that I could take credit for this idea, but I originally found out about TiVo-Fon two years when a research report surfaced online by two teams of University students studying the idea. Unfortunately, I lost track of the link so it will have to remain internet legend for the time being, but the system they described worked similar to the Movie-Fon hotline that you can buy theater tickets with.
To use the service, you would link your DVR to your cell phone number so that you could call 1-800-TiVo-Fon and immediately go into the main menu choices. Currently, TiVo does have a cell phone app, but it costs money to use and doesn’t allow you to schedule things at the last minute. With TiVo-Fon any cell phone could call and a voice recognition system could be set up to take you to the program you want to schedule. This way if you’re at dinner and someone mentions that there is something good on at home, you could order your recording and have it pushed into your box, so that you can watch it when you get home.
Potential Target = Fandango – Fandango is a fellow .com mania survivor who managed to scrape together an impressive business by being early and disruptive. Early on, TiVo and Fandango partnered to offer movie ticket reservations through the DVR and may even represent their first couch commerce transaction. Two years ago Comcast paid close to $200 million for the ticket company, but I think TiVo could buy them for less than $150 million. With the right budget and some slick marketing, TiVo could use Fandango to take on TicketMaster and StubHub.
TiVo Video Conferencing – It’s 2009 already, but where are all of the video phones. Making it easy to attach a camera and Microphone to your TiVo would really change what it means to reach out and touch somebody. By adding VOIP and business support, TiVo could expand their services into the commercial marketplace.
Potential Target = Skype – When you consider that Ebay paid $2.6 billion for Skype in 2005, this one may seem like a longshot, but telecommunications has only gotten more competitive since then and Ebay’s already signaled their intention to exit the business. By picking up the popular program and making a subsequent acquisition for a small relationship management company like Zoho, TiVo could build a multimedia telecommunications solution that would rival Salesforce.com
TiVo Networking – One of the biggest challenges that TiVo faced early on was trying to convince consumers of the benefit to plugging your DVR into the internet. Owning a networking company wouldn’t necessarily make this any easier, but it would help to further wedge TiVo into the center of the digital media experience. If there were enough synergies for it to make sense for Cisco to buy Scientific Atlantic, then it makes just as much sense for TiVo to acquire a networking company.
Potential Target = Netgear (symbol: NTGR) – A few years ago Netgear had a market cap that was almost four times larger then TiVo’s but today they weigh in at $540 million. With a profitable business model and revenue that is nearly three times what TiVo is currently bringing in, a $700 million bid wouldn’t be ridiculous.
TiVo Extender – Over the years, TiVo customers have loved the service so much that many of them have purchased multiple units. TiVo charges an extra fee to add an additional DVR, but doesn’t really make much of a profit because they are forced to subsidize the hardware purchase with smaller multi-room viewing fees.
Instead of trying to get their customers to buy multiple DVRs, TiVo should instead allow the first DVR to act like a server and then have extender devices inexpensively tap into the main DVR signal. This would allow TiVo to sell hardware at a profit and give away multi-room viewing to their customers. With companies like AT&T making a big deal about their muti-room capabilities, TiVo could use an extender strategy to undercut them in pricing.
Potential Target = Roku – Netflix may have put Roku on the map, but the company is headed for greatness on their own. We don’t know a lot about their valuation, but if you consider that they’ve only raised $6 million in VC backing, I think that it’d be easy for TiVo to pick them up for less than $50 million. Not only would the other TiVo video services compliment Roku subscribers, but it would be an easy and cost effective way to solve the multi-room limitations.
Some of these ideas are admittedly a bit far fetched, but you have to admit that they would make interesting mergers. While I don’t expect that we’ll see TiVo go on any big shopping sprees soon, as their cash bulks up and their legal victory pulls through, expect to see more people asking what they plan to do with the money.
What do you think, if FakeTomRogers stepped aside and you were hired you as the new CEO of TiVo, what would you do with a billion dollar jackpot?]]>
“I need not fear my enemies because the most they can do is attack me. I need not fear my friends because the most they can do is betray me. But I have much to fear from people who are indifferent.” – Russian Proverb
Now I know that most people don’t really care about the mechanics behind playing video files and I can’t say that I blame you for caring more about your content than the technology behind it, but while this post will get into some of the more mundane mechanics of the codec industry, I ask that you stick with me because behind the scenes a war is being fought for control of your very television.
This particular battle has been going on for over 10 years now and centers around something called a codec.
When J.D. Rockefeller set out to monopolize the oil industry, there were several crucial areas where he attacked. He knew that he couldn’t control all of the oil fields because it was literally bubbling out of the ground, but what he could control was the distribution method for getting oil to the end customer.
In building his monopoly he seized assets used to transport oil from raw material to the end consumer. Whether it was owning all of the oil pipelines, so that he could control what oil cost him, owning the railroads so he could dictate how far his competitors could reach or owning the distribution points where consumers bought kerosene to light their homes, he made sure that he had control over every aspect of it. This was good for Standard Oil investors, but wasn’t very good for competitors or consumers.
Online video may not seem like it has a lot to do with the oil industry, but if you look at it’s early development, there are many similarities. So much content is bubbling up that the real challenge isn’t finding video oil, it’s getting it to consumers. Instead of pipes, now we have internet access, instead of railroads there are CDN networks, instead of gas stations, there are operating systems ready to serve us 24 hours a day.
In all of these industries, competition has been limited to a handful of big companies, but the industry that I’m most interested is much smaller than any of these. In the grand scheme of things, codecs (and the filters that go along with them) are the refineries of the video world. They take digital signals and convert them into the flickering magic that appears on our screens. Consumers may not understand the technical details behind it, but they are a crucial chokepoint in your digital video experience.
This battle has been fought on many fronts, but in the end it always comes down to one issue. Those who think consumers should have a choice and those who think they know better. It’s about control over your entertainment experience. Who, What, Where, When, and How you are allowed to consume YOUR media. On one side, well funded corporations with huge financial stakes, on the other, an unorganized patchwork of misfit companies and an army of guerrilla volunteers desperately fighting for a better entertainment experience for all of us.
The war over how video is transmitted may not make it to the front pages, but how it turns out will be important for the success of digital video. In order to better understand how this battle is going, I reached out to interview one of the Colonels in this digital revolution.
Dan Marlin is the CEO and Co-Founder of CoreCodec. His company has built many of the tools necessary to play video files. Before starting his company, he worked for DivX and over the years has contributed extensively to the open source codec movement. He also sits on the board of the Matroska Foundation, an organization dedicated to enabling high definition digital video support for as many consumers as they can.
In our interview, we discussed the growing momentum behind the MKV format, his thoughts on DivX and the competitive landscape of the codec industry and had a passionate discussion around a controversial decision by Microsoft to prevent outside developers from using alternative filters in Window’s Media Player.
In regards to MKV, Marlin had many positives things to say about the momentum that they are seeing. When I asked him about interest in the format, he said that over the last 8 months, they’ve seen a “20 fold increase in the inquiries in regards to more details, about usage about enhancing the current feature set.”
This interest should mean good news for consumers. As more and more customers ask “where’s the MKV?“, hardware companies are starting to respond. When I asked Marlin about how long it would take before we see MKV reach critical mass he said,
“If you look at the adoption scale, you’d probably have to say that we’re at the Ubber Geek stage right now. It will probably take 2 – 3 years. We’re just starting to see the penetration now and it’s been three years since our last release. I would probably have to say two years. Not this Christmas, but the following Christmas you’ll probably start to see more devices.”
One of the more interesting things that came up during our conversations was some of the trends that Marlin is seeing in the MKV adoption curve. It’s no surprise that the anime community was one of the first ones to start using the technology, but I was surprised to learn that countries in Asia and Europe have been more enthusiastic in adopting MKV then in North America. In fact, the trends for MKV adoption mirror the original DivX adoption curve exactly. It’s almost as if the people who’ve been long time DivX users are the first ones to upgrade to an HD experience.
“Absolutely, as a matter of fact it’s mirrored exactly. You could look at DivX in the early days when I was there going back to 2001 and you can actually see the same adoption happening, the anime, the ripped releases from the AV heads, it’s mirroring it, but you have to ask why they are doing it? They are doing it because of the flexibility that it brings to what they’re doing. They can add, especially when it comes to some of the guys that rip DVD and the like and Blu-Ray, they kind of make it their own. They can add menus, there are menus out there that even though they are text, they do very basic things, but there can also be a ton of files inside the container itself, there are info files and pictures you can group.”
While Matroska was technically created by CoreCodec, Marlin told me that he has plans to spin it off into a foundation similar to Mozilla. They plan to offer sponsorships to companies that want to tap into their early adopter customer base. One of the things that I found fascinating throughout the interview was the openness behind such a transformative piece of technology. Instead of monetizing their creation, CoreCodec is building a business around the open source eco-system. Big media companies that believe you can’t build a business around “free”, would be well served in looking at how Core Codec has been able to position themselves by giving a good portion of their technology away.
“we looked at it not looking to make money and that wasn’t really the intention, but even what has been proven now and maybe not so much back then, open source and the ecosystem around open source, there can be profit. Even in a non-profit foundation or a not for profit foundation I should say, which the Matroska Foundation will eventually become, you know is pretty much the same thing. You still can be profitable and make money to support what you developed.”
When I ask Marlin about his thoughts on DivX and how they are positioned in the codec industry, his thoughts were bittersweet, “it’s a love-hate thing.” On one hand, having DivX adopt the MKV container does a lot towards making it a standard. It also helps to speed up the amount of time it will take to get into hardware devices. On the other hand, not a lot has changed since DivX and XviD split paths and now that the open source movement has taken the upper hand, he doesn’t like to see confusion between X.264/MKV and DivXHD.
“Obviously they’ve rethought what they had to do with H.264 which is a migration, but they’re not providing anything of value to what’s already out there. As a matter of fact, it brings more confusion than anything else and that’s the frustrating part because they have their own eco-system with certification and us as a solution provider like with CorePlayer or the CorePlayer platform itself is working with third party OEMs and they are asking questions in regards to DivX and DivXHD and we say the same thing we’ve been saying all along. DivX is Mpeg video and DivXHD is AVC video.”
Of all the topics that we discussed though, the most controversial was the decision by Microsoft to restrict how third party filters work within Windows media player.
To fully understand the issue, you need to know how your computer reads media files. When you click on your file, filters take a look at that data and tries to figure out what to do with it. If it’s audio, they’ll send the data to an audio decoder so your soundboard can play it. If it’s video, then it gets sent to a splitter where the audio stream and video stream are separated. From there a decoder looks at the video data, decodes it and sends it to a renderer for display on your screen.
The controversy revolves around how Microsoft prioritizes filters when you play back content. Currently, if you have several filters installed that can all handle the same job, WMP will look at the merit value of each filter and give preference to the highest one. Since you have the ability to prioritize which filters you want your computer to use, it allows you to create the ideal settings based on your hardware.
This comes in handy if you’re trying to play H.264 video in WMP and it happens to conflict with your video card. Since the user has control over the priorities, you’re able to create a better (more credible) configuration.
With the Windows 7 RC, Microsoft has taken away your ability to prioritize which filter you can use. From their perspective, they get a ton of complaints about filter problems and by making it a closed system it improves the experience for their customers. For the codec industry though, it will reduce the incentive for engineers to continue to work on filters because Microsoft has just essentially seized the entire filter market.
Microsoft will argue that because they allow people to install whatever filters they want on their own media players, that this restriction is somehow reasonable. After all, they’re not preventing customers from downloading another media player and configuring the settings anyway you like, they’re controlling their own product.
The problem with this argument though, is that while consumers have shown that they’re willing to download a codec, by and large, they’ve been very reluctant to download an entire media player. It’s a big commitment to mess with the default settings on Windows and because Microsoft bundles a copy of Window’s media player into every operating system they sell, it drastically minimizes the potential market that companies like CoreCodec, DivX and Nero can serve. This ultimately leads to less investment in codec technology and lower quality video for consumers in the long run.
Take a look for yourself at a real life comparison between video played using Media Foundation’s preferred filters and an open source combination. While the differences may be subtle, there is clearly better focus and definition in the open source solution. It might not be much, but it makes a huge difference when you put it on a 60″ screen. Today, you’d have the option of recreating the ideal settings in WMP, but with Windows 7 Microsoft is now in control.
While Marlin wouldn’t go as far as to accuse Microsoft of using their dominance over the operating system as a way of stifle third party codec competition, he did agree with me when I suggested that this may have more to do with preventing competition then securing their media player for consumers.
“You said it I didn’t, but essentially when it comes down to it, that’s what it is. It’s just frustrating that we all have to go through what we have to do and they could have provided an integrated solution without having to lock out third parties. Period.”
Now we can argue over whether or not Microsoft had an evil intent when they choose to shut down part of the codec industry, but regardless of the motives, competition is hurt by their decision to close media player to third party vendors. When I asked Marlin whether this would hurt his company or whether it was a dam in the river that would fork around the issue, he had conflicting thoughts.
““I think it’s going to be both. Microsoft will probably tell you that there is no problem and then the Core people will fork around it, but you’ve got to question the value of it though. You could still have embedded DirectShow filters, why have them under media foundation?”
Later on in the interview he extrapolates,
“I would say that as long as the default decoders are not set as the default and can be overwritten, I think we’re OK. The question is what steps will you have to go through and will Microsoft allow those steps. Right now you can edit it, they posted the solution online, but Microsoft could bypass that solution with the next RC. So that’s kind of like a wait and see thing. It does affect our business though, it does affect DivX’s business, it affects everyone’s business. “
Now Microsoft is free to run their business in anyway that they see fit and while the issue over filter compatibility within WMP may be an inch in the grand scheme of things, with each inch consumers lose a little bit more control. What’s so surprising to me about Microsoft’s behavior though, is how bold their actions are given the current regulatory climate.
Someone should nominate them for Alpha Dog of the Week because it takes giant brass balls to use your ability to bundle software, in order to shut down an entire industry, while you’re being accused accused of abusing your monopoly by bundling software within the operating system. If the EU understands even a little bit about codecs, I would expect them to be up in arms over this issue because it essentially proves the argument that they’ve been trying to make. Microsoft’s dominance in the operating system is having a detrimental effect on competition in other areas of the software industry.
It could very well be that Microsoft has good intentions here, but given their long history of doing whatever it takes to gain control of the codec industry, I can’t believe that this is by happy accident. This is a company that just spent a ton of money to exclusively webcast the Olympics in their Silverlight codec. The lack of MKV support in Windows 7 prompted the Hack 7 MC blog to write that “Microsoft’s support of the format is borderline neglectful.”
The decision to interfere with the priority filter settings is so Machiavellian I still don’t know what to make of it. My cold banker heart says yes! yes! yes!, but the consumer in me says dear God no. While I understand that these issues are hard to figure out and that there are many ways to look at them, I hope, for the sake of the entire codec community, that Microsoft will rethink their decision to exclude third parties from Windows media player.
For a complete transcript of my interview with Dan Marlin, please click here.]]>
What exactly is CoreCodec and how does it relate to what you are doing with Matroska?
“Matroska is a container that our engineers developed some years ago. It is part of CoreCodec, I mean CoreCodec technically owns the rights to the trademarks and the like for Matroska. We have begun to form a separate Matroska foundation which will pretty much takeover from what we’ve begun to more of an independent, something along the lines of the Mozilla foundation, where they independently control the source code, but for right now CoreCodec is maintaining and helping to startup the Matroska foundation itself.”
CoreCodec also does for-profit work as well is that right?
Why did you go with such a radical open source license for Matroska then? Was that the only way you saw it coming together and competing or is it a reflection of your core fundamentals?
“Really it goes back to what our roots were. If you go back to even from when I started with multimedia when I was originally with DivX, I was one of the original people in DivX and we had what was called the OpenDivX decore, that was pretty much under an open source type of derivative license that I think was called the DivX open license or something along those lines.
It didn’t come out, it didn’t really pan out very well for them because I thought that the eco-system that they were trying, which they eventually came to realize, that the eco-system they were trying to go for just wouldn’t work with that license.
so in a lot of ways at Matroska we saw, well we saw a lot of opportunities in that AVI itself was an outdated technology. At the time, MP4 the container wasn’t very well defined. You’re going back again to about six or seven years ago now, so we looked at it not looking to make money and that wasn’t really the intention, but even what has been proven now and maybe not so much back then, open source and the ecosystem around open source, there can be profit. Even in a non-profit foundation or a not for profit foundation I should say, which the Matroska Foundation will eventually become, you know is pretty much the same thing. You still can be profitable and make money to support what you developed. It’s no different than Redhat, though they are more at the corporate level trying to support their customers or their derivative works of the Red Hat OS on Linux.
With the CoreCodec side of the business how are you helping other companies? Who would be an ideal customer for you and how are you helping them?
“With regards to Matroska, it would have to be implementation. While Matroska is open source, we also have a free BSD style license version of our library for playback. What that means is that you can still playback the content even though you may have a closed eco-system. We still allow you to integrate the technology into your closed eco-system, so that’s the difference there. We help third party solution providers integrate Matroska into their solutions. Some examples that are currently out there implementing would be LG, Panasonic, Toshiba and the like, more recently Western Digital with their hardware that they just released for multi-media playback.”
Over the last 12 months it seems like we’ve seen awareness of MKV really start to take off. Even some of the more mainstream technology writers are starting to make it a check list feature, has that surprised you? What are you seeing in terms of the interest around the container? Has there been a ramp up over the last 12 months?
“Oh absolutely, as a matter of fact we’ve probably seen a 20 fold increase in the inquiries in regards to more details, about usage about enhancing the current feature set. It was really designed from the very beginning and if I can go back to the conversation that some of us had here in the early days, it was designed for the next 25 years, in that no matter what the MPEG consortium came up with in regards to the spec for whatever might be the next gen including Mp4 as a container, it was really designed to go beyond that, it was designed to let the spec grow as the technology kind of grew at the same time and again that’s the whole point of it.
Part of the early days, going back to DivX, one of the biggest things that held DivX back was the AVI container. It’s really why DivX right now is adopting Matroska in what their efforts are, and we’re all for that, even though, I’m no longer with DivX, I wish any third party that wishes to adopt a technology like Matroska the best of luck.
I really think it’s only going to enhance what has been in the past, a frustrating experience for end users. In that Matroska, once adoption has come and the tools are there, people start to understand more about the difference between a codec and a container, the experience will be much smoother because there won’t be hacked flavors of AVI or this or that, they’ll just be standards. No difference than what MP4 is, but the difference I think is about control.
People feel that they have no input whereas we listen to all third parties. We adjust and adapt as needed, but the core code itself has not needed to change itself in three and a half years, so we have not needed to touch the container itself in well over three years now and again that’s a testament to the flexibility of what is in place. Now in the future, that’s going to grow obviously with 2.0, but we’re actually going to slow our development for 2.0 because of the adoption curve of 1.0 right now. Which will allow us to be a little more meticulous and listen to the customers, listen to the consumers, the OEMs and the integration providers and see what their needs are and then we’ll kind of adapt to it, so we’ve kind of slowed down a little bit in what will be the future version of Matroska just so that people can start to enjoy what’s already out there.”
With Matroska, because it’s a container it allows you to put various codecs in it. Does that create problems when you go to try and certify MKV with a CES company, where maybe it could play some MKV files, but not all of them?
It’s setup so that the structure within it is the codebase with the exception of only one or two formats which are only recent formats and I think one of them wouldn’t actually be seen at all. It’s pretty much setup, I don’t think you’re really going to see problems.
Now certification, that’s something that we’re just getting into now. We’ve put out there I think in our specs, we actually put out levels of certification what a mobile and desktop platform are going to need. We put that out there for comment and later on we will have some form of certification, but it’s more so for sponsors and things down that line where we’ll certify their hardware against a certain profile and allow them to use logos and the like for distribution on the device itself or on the box and things like that, so it’s more so the flexibility and the updates hasn’t needed it for awhile and I don’t think any existing formats, even the ones I briefly mentioned, their not pressing. I think one is E-AC3, but I think even the guys that discuss their current code will still support it.”
Given the momentum that you’ve been gathering, what do you feel the next step is? What needs to happen for the next stage of MKV’s growth?
“Well probably, more hardware. That’s where we see it. The growth in the past 8 months, I won’t even say 6 months, prior to Christmas 2008, we saw big growth and we see this year that the growth even will be much more explosive going into this year’s holiday season. So I think that would probably be the biggest thing that we would want and we’re also expanding out from the services we’re providing within CoreCodec. People are starting to look more closely at what we have with our other technologies with CoreAVC, CorePlayer and even next year with CoreMVC which is based on H.264 and CoreAVC. So we’re excited about doing that, helping others as an alternative to what is currently out there right now. Again, no different from what we’ve done in the past.
How do Core services work within an open source eco-system? You’re working on creating these filters for private customers right?
Yes, it depends, both You’ve got to take it two different ways or at least we look at it two different ways. One as a consumer and one more from the OEM/consumer electronics side. Each one is supported in different facets. On the consumer side you have our codecs themselves outside of the container, the Matroska container, we have all of our decoders CoreAVC, CoreAAC, we support Mpeg2, Mp3, etc. We pretty much have our own codecs very similar to Ffmpeg, except it’s closed source.
Now later on at some point, we do plan to open source pretty much our entire eco-system, if the business warrants it and right now it looks like does and that is because of the popularity of the CoreAVC as it is. We can still open source it and monetize it and also release our encoder as well, but at the same time we’re very cautious about what we do. We take steps appropriately. We do, again going back to the core of what we’ve always done, we open source a lot of our technology. Like Matroska, the Haali media splitter may not be open source, but it is free and we put it out there for everybody to use. Most of our other directional filters from CoreVorbis to our original CoreAAC is all open source and available on our website.”
Help me understand some of the terms out there that can be a bit confusing, for me at least. What’s the difference between a codec, a splitter and a filter?
“You can throw renderer in there as well. Each one plays a certain role in playback. Consider a container like Matroska a ball. Inside of that ball you can put anything. You can put pictures, you can put video, you can put audio, you can put text files, you can put pretty much, even executibles in there if you support it with your parser. It gives you unlimited possibilities to put stuff in that ball. Then you have the codec which allows playback. They are the physical means for playing back the audio or video. Now in between the playback and the file itself, you’re going to have to have a player that supports it and to be able to do so, you need a splitter and a renderer and that’s where the Haali media splitter comes in.
Technically what it does, it puts pin outputs to the audio and video and connects the playback to the physical software itself within the operating system and that’s on Windows, Linux is something different and CorePlayer is something different as well. CorePlayer has it’s own built in filters. It’s not DirectShow, it’s pretty much has it’s own internal decoder, renderer and splitter.
Each playback means is going to have it’s own and Mplayer does it by mimicing DirectShow where you physically take the Windows .dll and you’re able to take it over to Linux and kind of emulate DirectShow within Linux. It’s hard to understand, but once you start to use it a little bit more and you start hearing the terminology you become much more familiar with it, but just know that each part plays a very key role in processing the playback of audio and video.”
Looking at the step forward to Window’s 7 that is coming out, there’s been a lot of positive press in terms of native codec support and the h.264 and AAC support. A lot of people would say this is a good thing, that this is going to make the codec experience more seemless for consumers. Why should anyone care about Windows locking down their filters and is Window’s 7 really bad for the codec industry or is this something where the good outweighs the bad?
“It really depends on how you look at it. If you’re a consumer, absolutely. It’s a controlled eco-system, it’s no different than what Apple does with the iPod or even the iPhone where they’re trying to control the experience for the end consumer. For technology companies, however that has a very large investment in what they’re doing as a service provider for their individual solutions, it’s bad.
Going back to our case with CoreAVC, our H.264 filter, we have people that have purchased it, consumers, OEMs that have purchased it and to have to shut out what is something that people have come to expect, ie. the flexibility of being able to add filters or add playback filters on their own, I think is bad.
You should always give them the choice.
I understand the point of trying to control the environment. I’m sure that one of the largest problems that Microsoft deals with when it comes to Window’s media player is people complaining that their multimedia doesn’t play. They’re trying to integrate that, it does make sense from a business case, but to have to shut out, under the guise, maybe of saying that it is a matter of controlling it, I think we can pretty much say that, or guess here, I don’t want to overstep myself, that it may be a guise and that may be in lieu of control.
It has to do with DRM and if you think about the formats that have been shut out, it’s AVC or H.264 and it has to do with AC3, this is what’s in Media Foundation itself. Now Media Foundation is a higher class replacement for DirectShow, in all honesty, it’s DirectShow, that’s all it is.
So they basically used their own filter and are now saying that we’re going to control the codec at the filter level and anybody who wants to use a different filter, you can do that, but you can’t do it on our player, you have to build your own application?”
“Right and there are some work arounds where people are hacking the registry and are trying to come up with bypasses where it overwrites the priorities for media foundation so when somebody clicks an h.264 file, that it actually will open up with a third party filter, DirectShow. The point is, there’s no documentation, or very limited documentation and there’s not even clarification.
Even Microsoft is confused in this case.
If you take Silverlight for example, Ok lets do a comparison with Adobe. Adobe has the Adobe media player and the like. They all share the same architecture essentially. Whether it’s Adobe Air, they all interangle amongst each other, whereas Microsoft’s Silverlight has it’s own collection of decoders within it and does not share the embedded ones that are on the OS. It’s kind of confusing and goes against what they should be doing.
If they’re truly trying to control it, meaning yeah that’s OK that Silverlight is a stand alone product, but if they’re going for the largest control then why aren’t they sharing the Media Foundation codec within Windows 7, within Silverlight? Maybe I could see stuff like XP, Vista making sense, but it doesn’t in Window’s 7, they should be sharing the same architecture and again, I don’t know I would probably say that the argument is going to come for control for their users experience, but I would probably have to lean towards it being more in line with DRM.
It’s about control for secured content.
Do you think DRM is the reason why Silverlight hasn’t been made portable? I mean isn’t the solution that Matroska is solving partly because there isn’t a high def portable format out there?
“You know, I’ve heard people talk about that, but I don’t really know about that. I just think that it’s almost about staying the course, but trying to migrate to something new at the same time and I just don’t know if the flexibility of being able to get things like Matroska into what they have, would work. How would you even get Matroska into Silverlight?
I don’t know
“I don’t know either and we have some of the top guys over at some of the forums like Doom9 and you have some of the engineers from Microsoft kind of chatting about it and as long as we’re putting the thought in their head, I’m hoping that it’s going to play a role in their future decisions. Not just for Matroska, but even for third party decoders like CoreAVC or DivX or PowerDVD or Nero or any of those other third parties.”
Looking at that piece of the eco-system, it seems like there are a lot of MKV files out there and now that we’re beginning to see more hardware devices support it, how far away are we from software solutions where you can start editing files or is that not even related to your goals with MKV?
No, it absolutely is, in fact that was one of the keys of what we’ve always done. You have AVIMux or MKVtoolnix which, is probably one of the most advanced tools, it is THE authority when it comes to mixing and creating Matroska files. That was a very key part of Matroska from the very beginning. We wanted to unify, or mirror some of the stuff that we’re doing with CorePlayer. Even CoreAVC is a single unified core for every operating system and Mosu with what’s he’s done and even Steve or some of our lead engineers, what they designed from the very beginning, is to be able to do that for adoption purposes. That way there were no restrictions, Linux OSS, Windows Pocket PC, Windows Mobile, even though it doesn’t really matter, it will create outputted formats supported on all operating systems and the tools for creating Matroska and editing Matroska is no different.
They’ve evolved over the last five years as much as the format has not evolved. The tools are the complete opposite I should say. They’ve evolved with at least a dozen versions every single year whereas the container hasn’t really needed to change. That’s a key to our success. Again, all under the same type BSD license where they can take the source code and integrate into the product, whatever that product might be.
They’re not required to pay royalties or licensing, all we want is for people to adopt the format itself, that’s the key to the success of it.
It seems like there are going to be three standards for downloadable media. The Silverlight solution, The Apple solution and the open solution that people can go towards. Recently, it seems like a lot of the hardware providers are partnering with studios to do streaming deals and the hardware is more about incorporating YouTube and Netflix into the devices then full portability for consumers. How long do you think it will take for mass adoption of MKV and having a serious penetration level where most of the devices out there have to support to?
If you look at the adoption scale, you’d probably have to say that we’re at the Ubber Geek stage right now. It will probably take 2 – 3 years. We’re just starting to see the penetration now and it’s been three years since our last release. I would probably have to say two years. Not this Christmas, but the following Christmas you’ll probably start to see more devices.
Even with companies like DivX putting DivXHD and the like, but we’re not convinced that DivXHD is going to succeed at all. It really is just a rehack of H.264. It’s no longer DivX. DivX was a file format and they’ve done nothing different with this, they just have the eco-system with their hardware partners for when they upgrade. I don’t know, I’d probably have to say within the next year and a half, we’ll be at a more critical mass.”
DivX adoption of MKV helped to solidify support in creating it as a standard, but as far as what DivX is trying to do with it, do you see a solution there or do you think that they have to reinvent their business as DivX SD becomes less popular? Where do you feel that they are positioned in the codec space?
“Well they have. Obviously they’ve rethought what they had to do with H.264 which is a migration, but they’re not providing anything of value to what’s already out there. As a matter of fact, it brings more confusion than anything else and that’s the frustrating part because they have their own eco-system with certification and us as a solution provider like with CorePlayer or the CorePlayer platform itself is working with third party OEMs and they are asking questions in regards to DivX and DivXHD and we say the same thing we’ve been saying all along.
DivX is Mpeg video and DivXHD is AVC video.
You can still say DivX name, just put a disclaimer saying blah blah blah, there’s no difference. Now DivX would probably argue with that and say they have file specific format stuff, and they do if you talk about the DMX menus, which they do have or they have Sub-X, which is their subtitle format and yeah that’s proprietary to their decoder and for them to be able to playback those file formats, but do they really bring anything of value to the table? No.
We support sub-titles in Matroska in .KF, so any kind of SSA or other sub-title formats we already support and the menu system is already out there for the 1.0 menus. You can create menu overlays right now within Matroska.
In a lot of ways, it almost seems like they’re back at the Xvid/DivX split where you have something where there is now this open source solution and correct me if I’m wrong, but if you’re Toshiba and want to support MKV in your products does that cost them anything at all?
“With DivX sure”
No, no, no, recently JVC had an MKV box without DivX, did it cost them anything at all to include Matroska support?
So that’s very disruptive when you look at the eco-system and it goes back to the question of you’ve got these closed sourced solutions where you’re building a business and making money, but then you’ve created this open source solution. Is that because the only way to take on Microsoft and Apple is to keep it open and you need that help or is it more that you wanted to future proof your own container?”
“It wasn’t so much container it was more or less a need. The limitations on AVI as a container were very frustrating for engineers to be able to do things that they wanted very easily, you could not. Lets say you wanted to add or remove elements from within the container, for example an audio track where you wanted to be able to add an additional audio track. You couldn’t do that with AVI easily, you could hack it, but there weren’t tools to be able to extract.
With our tools you can extract or remove or replace very easily, so it wasn’t a move against Microsoft by any means, it was more of a necessity of what we wanted and then once we found out what we wanted, we tried to look at the future and see what we can do to extend the adoption for that 20 – 25 year period and we feel right now considering the feedback that everybody’s provided over the past few years and the fact that we haven’t changed for the past few years that we’ve kind of accomplished that.
Now to monetize it? The whole point wasn’t really to monetize it. We will with some of the stuff we’re doing, we have contractors that go out and help out and integrate within CoreCodec by helping third parties and that’s great and with the Foundation that will change a little bit because of the sponsors, but it’ll be no different than XMPP or Mozilla where you have sponsorship levels.
It gives you funding to do marketing, so that you can get people interested
Yeah, you want to be able to advertise. We also want to be able to further our eco-system, not only with Matroska, but also with CoreCodec and some of the stuff around other technology that we’re doing and we want to be able to provide that so having that will help us continue to stay in business and continue to further evolve the technology.
Providing the logos and the certification for those levels will definitely help to that point and cause less confusion in the marketplace, which again I feel that DivX is and will continue to cause. Again we’re not sold, they’re going against everything that we have tried to put out there, but again I understand it.
What’s to differentiate an MKV file that was created with DivX tools vs. Us? The only thing we can do is warn the user. We can detect it in the header of the file that was created and we can say you’re trying to play back a DivXHD file and this file may not be supported. We’ll continue to play it back in our eco-system with CorePlayer. With the filter we can do the same thing, we can warn the user that it was created with the DivX tools and it may not be supported because it may not be and DivX will try to tell you that everything is compliant with Matroska and I’m sure that it is, but that’s just what they’re saying. We’ve already identified stuff that’s not compliant and we’re reporting back to them and it’s good to have a type of relationship with them.
There’s a bit of a dichotomy there. It sounds like one hand you’re competitors, but on the other hand they’re ability to get this out into their ecosystem could really benefit the container as well?
Yeah, it’s a love-hate thing, same thing with Microsoft really. I wish them luck. I think that what they’re doing is great for the container. It shows that we were right all along. Hacking AVI was not good and Matroska was built for the future and I’m glad for that, but at the same time I don’t want them to ruin something for the consumers or confuse consumers anymore.
That’s my only concern. I wish them luck. When I left DivX, I left them wishing that they could have done better and I’m glad to see that they made something of a good move, but the question is how will it hurt in the long run.”
They made a splash, but where they’re going is what everyone is trying to figure out right now?
“What they have going for them is the current partnerships with the companies that they have and that’s a great great thing and again I just feel that under the guise of saying that it’s DivX and DivX only is what the third parties need to realize. Most of them aren’t stupid please, the third parties whatever companies you mention, they all know.
They have to see some value in the certification in order to spend the money so if it’s not there it won’t shake out that way.
“Absolutely and again you have to question the true certification and the cost for that certification. I’m not going to sit here and spit out numbers that they charge to certify, but the value is about control. They’re looking to control the experience for the customer, for that third party. That’s going to become less and less of an issue over time, especially with faster hardware coming into play and even TVs and the like, I’m not sure if you saw the latest TV reviews from Google?”
I saw that you have an LG TV coming out, but that’s thru USB stick right, not thru an ethernet connection?
“Yeah, but the speed of the menu system is horrible, it’s bad.”
So there is this trade off where you need the chips to be a certain speed in order to support your format?
“Yeah, but like with anything that will become less of an issue. In the mobile market CorePlayer excels because of the speed of the player and that’s because it’s written for 386, we write at a very low level, so when you start taking bloated code and start applying that to something that doesn’t have a lot of CPUs or dedicated CPU cycles, that’s when you start to realize the same performance. Going in it’s favor though, you do have hardware catching up especially when they have to upgrade to H.264. With TVs, it’s no different from some of the stuff they’re doing. Even with CorePlayer it’s already integrated with some third parties for TV usage, so that’s great for us and what we’re doing, but all we’re doing is providing the multimedia framework for playback on the TV itself and the user interface with CoreUI.
Going back to the Window’s 7 issue real quickly, do you think the decision to freeze out the outside filters, is that going to hurt the codec industry, is that going to result in less competition or will this be another case where there’s a dam in the river and the river forks around it?
“I think it’s going to be both. Microsoft will probably tell you that there is no problem and then the Core people will fork around it, but you got to question the value of it though. You could still have embedded DirectShow filters, why have them under media foundation?
Because you can lock competition out, people won’t download other media players they will download codecs.
“You said it I didn’t, but essentially when it comes down to it, that’s what it is. It’s just frustrating that we all have to go through what we have to do and they could have provided an integrated solution without having to lock out third parties. Period.
That’s the most frustrating thing. Then to not provide the information needed in order to overwrite, obviously we can now the hacks are out there, guys have already posted the registry key that we can kind of use, but what we’re doing here is we’re waiting. They’re not providing us with any of the information that we need now, so we’re in a wait and see mode. We’re in RC-1 right now with Windows 7 we’ll have to see with RC. Maybe they’ll post more information.
It sounds like this isn’t so much a threat to your ability to do business, but rather a lot more man hours, a lot more work to get this worked out?
“Yeah, I would say that as long as the default decoders are not set as the default and can be overwritten, I think we’re OK. The question is what steps will you have to go through and will Microsoft allow those steps. Right now you can edit it, they posted the solution online, but Microsoft could bypass that solution with the next RC. So that’s kind of like a wait and see thing.
It does affect our business though, it does affect DivX’s business, it affects everyone’s business.
When you can’t have filters within your application work properly . . . whether anybody realizes it or not, there’s mass adoption going for Windows 7. I can tell you that the demographics from our website, the ubbergeeks that are early adopters, I can tell you right now that the people running XP and Vista jumped to Windows 7. A huge percentage of them, probably 75% of them are all on Windows 7 and this is just since the RC came out.
It’s going to become an issue very fast, much more so than anybody thought. We need some kind of answers and I guess you’re not really going to get them right now from Microsoft. They are on our forums talking a little bit chatting back and forth with Haali, Steve and myself, so it’s good to see some dialog, but we’re still not getting any answers and I don’t expect that to change.
It seems like it’s an issue that affects your industry quite a bit, but it’s hard for people to see past that just because it’s not as visible.
“It’s definitely not as visible, but when people start screaming . . . . we’ll probably see that, if they are planning on releasing Windows 7 by Christmas . . . It’s going to be ‘great’ fall.”
I know that when DivX first came out, it was released in Europe and there was big adoption in France and to a certain extent spread geographically from there. Have you seen similar trends with MKV?
“Absolutely, as a matter of fact it’s mirrored exactly. You could look at DivX in the early days when I was there going back to 2001 and you can actually see the same adoption happening, the anime, the ripped releases from the AV heads, it’s mirroring it, but you have to ask why they are doing it?
They are doing it because of the flexibility that it brings to what they’re doing. They can add, especially when it comes to some of the guys that rip DVD and the like and Blu-Ray, they kind of make it their own. They can add menus, there are menus out there that even though they are text, they do very basic things, but there can also be a ton of files inside the container itself, there are info files and pictures you can group.
It’s creates a more interactive experience for consumers?
“Yeah and is that different than .divx? it is, but again, it is what it is. They’re looking for something that has a hacker edge to it and not that Matroska was really created for that, but we’re glad to see adoption no matter where it occurs and that kind of pushes hardware companies to do the same. They’re getting their customers asking why isn’t MKV support in there? Look at Sony, why isn’t there MKV support in the PS3? It’s free, they should add it, same thing with the Xbox 360.
Why do you think that the hacker community choose MKV for the Blu-Ray rips?
“Probably because of rips support, we started to see it right off the bat really. A huge Japanese following with Matroska back in probably 2004, somewhere right around there. We saw that right off the bat, the anime people jumped right on it.”
Do you have any sense as to why anime seems to be so far ahead of the curve when it comes to online video?
“We’ve actually had this discussion internally. I wish I could answer that, you could say it’s geographic and that the Asian market is faster to adopt cutting edge technologies, but at the same time why is China still using Real video? It could be argued both ways.
I would tend to think that they just look for something that’s flexible to their needs and I think that’s what Matroska is providing just like DivX did back in the early days with quality video. It was night and day vs. anything that was prior to that. I think Matroska brings the same thing to the table, but we do it with a little bit more flexibility than what they can do with the files themselves, being able to attach multiple files within the container.
What do Matroska fans have to look forward to next? In the next 3 – 6 months, are we going to see more hardware coming out?
Is 2.0 going to be rolling out or is that further down the road?
2.0 like I said, we’ve definitely pushed it out for awhile because were going to hang back and let 1.0 get the adoption. You’ll probably see things finalized with MKS/MKV/MKA so there’s support within the web browser itself by default. Within all web browsers, Safari and the like. The application type will be set. That will be coming in setting us up for maybe tweaking it for some more menus.
We’re also talking about adding a bit more menu work into 1.0 and we’ve already done some work prior to 2.0 which is a major part of Matroska technology called EBML. We’ve already completed EBML 2.0, as a matter of fact EBML 2.0 is a complete rewrite of 1.0 which is in Matroska 1.0. It really provides us greater flexibility for what we will be doing for Matroska 2.0. At the same time, it uses the technologies that we created here at CoreCodec and utilizes those technologies within EBML which is CoreC which is our AVC library language. Going along those lines is what we’re planning for 2.0.
It’s exciting, you guys are at the heart of something pretty big here I think and to be part of that is neat. Since this is your 2nd go around is there anything that you think you’ll do differently from when you were at DivX?
“Yeah, it has to do with playback. While Matroska for us is great, we’re obsessed with fluid playback no matter what it is, including Matroska, so right now our main goals are to extend the eco-system, the CorePlayer eco-system even further and then be cutting edge with Matroska as we roll out our 1.x version and also 2.0 and that’s pretty much it. We’re excited to be able to provide that for the consumers and our OEM customers.”
I was on DivX’s website earlier today and saw a link to an online survey. Since I don’t tend to be very shy about sharing my opinions, these sorts of things are the perfect click bait for me. Most of the questions were about how and where I watch online video, but after answering a dozen or so, one of them caught my eye.
“5. Would you be interested in a free service that lets you bookmark online videos to queue and play back in media center software or on a device?”
I’ve never really been a heavy user of bookmarking services, but being able to bookmark TV would be much more appealing. One of the biggest problems with bridging the computer to TV gap, is the process of finding the content that you want to watch and then getting it to the television set. For downloadable media this is easier to accomplish, but for streaming media you’ll need some kind of a PC or internet connected gadgetry. Once you are juiced up to the net, trying to navigate the vast sea of digital content with a remote is like trying to paddle upstream as you go over Niagra Falls backwards.
So far, Netflix seems to have come up with the best solution, but there is still room for others to build a better mousetrap. Instead of letting consumers use a remote to browse all of their programing, Netflix makes you bookmark your watch now movies via the old fashioned computer. This hybrid tv/computer approach may lack a bit of elegance, but it does create a more satisfying experience to the end user. Sometimes having too many choices can create a paralyzing effect when it comes to finding content.
If DivX were to launch their own bookmarking service, here’s what I think it would look like. Instead of limiting their “queues” to Netflix content exclusively, they would allow consumers to bookmark content from all over the web. While there would be a few notable exceptions, I bet that they could build support for 90% of the sites on OVGuide.com. Using some kind of greasemonkey script or a toolbar button, consumers would be able to click a button and create a playlist of streaming content that they can watch later. As you begin to bookmark more and more videos, the service would get to know you and could make video recommendations to you. Once consumers are at the television, they’d be able to connect to their data stream and shuffle through their own personalized VOD channels. The killer feature would be the public streams that allow you browse through your friends’ queues too.
Throw in some nifty social networking features, support for sites like Twitter, Facebook and Friendfeed to help make it go social and a partnership with StumbleUpon video or Reddit’s bookmarking service to help get others to adopt it and DivX could have a very useful application for their Connected solution. If they’re able to build enough of a critical mass around these types of enhanced video services, it would help differentiate DivX’s features from generic codecs.
This question alone doesn’t necessarily mean that DivX will actually try to launch another social network, but it does suggest that they are at least thinking about it. What do you think, something only a geek could love or would you be interested in bookmarking online videos for playback on your TV?]]>
The last couple of years may have felt like a bad dream to most investors, but for DivX shareholders it’s been nothing short of a nightmare. They don’t hand out Oscars for businesses, but if they did DivX would have won hands down for best horror flick.
When the company first went public, expectations were high. YouTube had just been sold for $1.6 billion, DivX was demonstrating 75% gains in their high margin core licensing business, and their unique business model looked like it offered a very strong moat from competitors like Apple and Microsoft.
At one point DivX’s market cap exceeded $750 million, today it barely closed above $150 million. Over $600 million dollars in capitalization wiped out by one misstep after another. Admitedly, the tough economic environment can be partially blamed for DivX collapse, but the sad truth is that much of the value destruction could have been avoided.
Shortly after DivX went public, Jeran Wittenstein wrote “DivX was founded just before the dotcom bust in February 2000 after Greenhall managed to convince Jerome Rota — a French software engineer who created DivX’s founding technology — to join him in building a company. Including Greenhall and Rota, eventually there would be five co-founders, all of whom are younger than Greenhall and still with the company.” (Note: bold print added by me)
They may have been able to survive the dot com collapse, but DivX’s founders weren’t able to survive the success of going public. In December 2007, Jordan Greenhall, Darius Thompson, & Tay Nguyen all left the company after DivX’s board of Directors made the inexplicable decision to cancel their spin off of Stage6. Joe Bezdek officially left the company 10 months later and now I hear that Jerome Rota, DivX’s original creator, resigned from the company on February 6th of this year.
While Rota remains on the DivX board of Directors, the loss of his day to day influence can’t be understated. I only had the opportunity to meet him once, but was impressed by his remarkable vision. These five individuals may not have had the spit and polish that Wall St. expects from traditional executives, but they weren’t afraid to take risks and knew how to motivate the troops beneath them. The impact from the loss of these employees goes well beyond their individual contributions and investors have already seen shockwaves from these loses ripple through DivX’s employee base.
Two and a half years later, investors have voted with their feet, all five of the founders have now left the company, cracks are beginning to form in their moat and their franchise is very much in danger. The company has gone from being an innovative risk taker to a zombie of her former self. DivX now stands at a crucial crossroad. Are they willing to risk potential annihilation to save consumers from their zombie masters or do investors have Dawn of the DivX in store for a sequel?
“Affliction comes to us all, not to make us sad, but sober; not to make us sorry, but to make us wise; not to make us despondent, but by its darkness to refresh us as the night refreshes the day; not to impoverish, but to enrich us.” – Henry Ward Beecher
There are many instances where management has stumbled, but the end result all comes down to a loss of confidence. They’ve lost the confidence of their shareholders, the analysts, their employees and most importantly, the consumers who drive demand for their products.
Without a dramatic turnaround, I fear that this lack of confidence will spread to their manufacturing partners and we’ll see DivX lose their digital video franchise. While there is still plenty of cash flow left to milk from the DVD market, without aggressively expanding their market position, DivX’s influence will be over before they have a chance to finish the revolution they started.
Barbarians at the gate
When DivX went public, investors were willing to pay a premium to get exposure to the stock. At one point investors were paying more then 10 times sales, a P/E over 30 and over five times DivX’s book value. Based on the midpoint of DivX’s 2008 guidance, DivX is now valued at 1.15 times book, 1.66 times sales and a p/e ratio of 9.5. When you consider that DivX is holding $120 million in cash and short term investments, investors are pricing them more like a blank check IPO, then a strong growing company. You can argue that this is a result of the poor financial markets, but I think it speaks volumes about the lack of confidence that shareholders seem to have in management.
DivX’s response to their problems has been to try and slash and burn their way out of it. When they closed Stage6, they also layed off approximately, 10% of their staff. After Yahoo! backed out of their toolbar arrangement, DivX fired another 10% of their staff. If DivX was struggling to get by, I could accept these types of sacrifices, but the reality is that these cuts are only designed to boost earnings for the company.
I believe that DivX’s management is under the impression, that if they can increase earnings enough, investors will reward them by returning to their stock. The problem with this strategy is that it may be easy for DivX to position themselves to feed off of years of hard work, but without continuing to invest in the business, they have little chance of realizing meaningful growth. When DivX presents their 2008 earnings in early March, I believe that their focus will be on strong earnings results. This may look impressive from a distance, but don’t be distracted unless it’s accompanied by strong revenue growth. Earnings are certainly nice for investors, but if DivX has stopped growing, then investors won’t pay a very high multiple.
When DivX presented at the Thomas Weisel technology conference earlier this month, they used the following graph to illustrate their past growth. On the surface, it’s hard to criticize the progress they’ve made.
While there’s no doubt that DivX has accomplished a lot in a very short time, where they are going is more important then where they’ve been. Sadly, over the last year they’ve seen their progress come to a screeching halt. Another way to illustrate, the same information that DivX used in their Thomas Weisel presentation, is to graph the percentage that revenue has grown each year. Even if we exclude things like the Yahoo! toolbar fiasco, the trend for DivX’s core business doesn’t offer a lot to get excited by.
In 2003, DivX grew their core licensing business over 700%, in 04′ they saw 184% growth, in 05′ they saw 84% gains, in 06′ they almost experienced a 76% increase in growth. In 07′ signs of danger started to appear, but they still realized 40% growth from their core business. If we use the midpoint of their guidance for 08′ revenue, DivX should see a 13% increase in core revenue for 08′.
As DivX’s business has grown, there is an expectation that the law of large numbers will start to kick in, but if current trends continue, it would appear that DivX’s core licensing revenue will hit near term maturation sometime this year.
Jordan Greenhall said that 2007 would be a building year for DivX, Kevin Hell said the same thing about 08′. With the company in self destruct mode, how optimistic should investors be for 2009?
Trouble In Never Never Land
Some investors may cheer the savings in earnings, but make no mistake, it has had a tremendous cost. The coup to get rid of Greenhall, the divisive nature of current management and the layoffs have all had a tremendous impact on employee morale. DivX may claim that their employee relations are normal in their SEC filings, but there is too much evidence to suggest that DivX now suffers from Yahooitis! These creative individuals are the soul of the company. If DivX continues in their zombie state, more and more employees will leave, feelings will become even more bitter and the company’s progress will be stalled.
If you want to see proof of how bad employee relations have become, take a look at DivX’s reviews on Glassdoor.com. Kevin Hell’s current approval rating is 15%. That’s worse then GW’s numbers, when he left office. To put this into perspective, Hell’s ranking gives him the dubious distinction of being the 18th worst CEO of the 7,185 companies that Glassdoor is tracking.
If you read the comments on the site, it’s very revealing about what’s going on behind the glass curtain.
“It’s party time…if you are a VP or above…”
It’s a fun atmosphere and very social if you are of the right mindset. Lot’s of cool people and talent…
Watch your back…I didn’t trust any of the management at all after seeing my boss’ team cut without her knowing beforehand. Very closed, “open environment”… If you are looking to complete a project to add to your portfolio…think again…my projects changed scope every 3 weeks. The strategic direction changes everytime the wind blows.
Advice to Senior Management
Hire new management that cares more about the company’s success than their cushy compensation packages… Layoffs in 2008 were taking place while senior management was cashing in on millions of $$ in stock…even at very low strike prices….Something very fishy is happening here…”
or this one from a current employee who goes by the name anonymous
Anonymous in San Diego, CA: (Current Employee)
“Great company, TERRIBLE management.”
You get a chance to work with a lot of cool, talented people.
All the cool, talented people are getting laid off/fired/quitting.
Advice to Senior Management
DivX had so much energy and drive but the management seems to have succeeded in beating that out of the company almost completely.
Here’s one that calls out DivX CFO Dan Halvorson
Developer in San Diego, CA: (Past Employee – 2008)
“DivX was a fun place to work…. at one time”
DivX has a wonderful group of bright engineers. The camaraderie in my team was superb and we made the best of the otherwise dismal situation. The HR department is better than most in that they truly seem to care about the needs of the employees. There is an opportunity to do something big, and that can be exciting as well.
I’m not sure where to start! The CFO Dan Halvorson has a reputation for layoffs and cash-outs. He was rumored to have said, “I love it when people quit”. It’s gotten to the point where Halvorson avoids the office and never sticks around at company events. I suppose he knows he isn’t welcome. The constant layoffs and lack of openness to employees gives people an sense of uneasiness and all you can really do is speculate what they’re upto. At least with Jordan, he would be straight with you. The Hell regime seems pretty secretive and sometimes dishonest most times. The Stage 6 debacle was a train wreck. So much of the company’s resources were thrown at this pig and look what came of it? Nothing. A number of long time employees left around this time? Coincidence? Maybe, but not likely. I am guessing the founders got tired of the games and politics.
Advice to Senior Management
Get rid of Halvorson, he is dragging morale down all on his own. No one likes him or wants him there. Be more honest and forthcoming with employees.
The most accurate of them all though, is the bittersweet summary of DivX’s short history.
Anonymous in San Diego, CA: (Past Employee – 2007)
“Good While It Lasted”
The culture, when it first started was remarkable. There was a great vibe in the office and you constantly felt that you were being challenged and motivated.
After they went public, and Stage 6 launched, there was a massive series of mistakes that killed morale.
Advice to Senior Management
Listen to your employees.
It may be tempting to write off comments like these as disgruntled employees, but there’s obviously friction between labor and management. Shareholders may not want to acknowledge it, but they would be foolish to ignore it.
If DivX’s reign of Hell is allowed to continue, labor problems will only get worse. Lower payroll may be good for the bottom line, but it does nothing to boost their revenue, long term potential or the health of the underlying business. Going into zombie mode may be the safest way for management to keep their jobs, but zombies move slow and now is the time for action, not caution.
DivX’s digital eco-system is shifting like quicksand beneath them
Like the DVD, DivX’s codec is being made obsolete by high definition. To DivX’s credit, they saw this trend earlier than most and had the foresight to buy MainConcept to help manage this shift, but even there we’ve seen talented defections.
Support for H.264 doesn’t automatically mean that their codec won’t be skipped over in lieu of generic HD certification. The biggest threat to DivX’s business model is that CE makers will use the DivX to HD transition as a way to build support for generic certification. If consumers aren’t demanding DivX support, it will make it easy for them to cut DivX out of the equation. Managing this change to their eco-system, should be the company’s top priority. If DivX can’t convince device makers, that consumers really want their product, more and more manufacturers will leave DivX for cheaper alternatives, creating a downward spiral on their licensing business.
Winbox COO, Niklas Samios shares his rationale for choosing to skip DivX certification
Since Hell took the helm of the company, DivX has been focused on licensing premium content from the major studios. They have scored agreements with Sony and Time Warner, but between their P2P reputation and their Stage6 experiment, one can understand why some of the studios would be reluctant to dance with them.
Last August, they announced a partnership with Cinema Now for showcasing DivX content. While it’s unclear as to when their collaboration will start, it sounds like they are working on creating some kind of new entertainment destination.
According to CEO Kevin Hell DivX is “actively working with retailers to launch sites that can sell content leveraging our DRM in the marketplace. We announced Cinema Now last year and we are actively working to launch a retail offering with Cinema Now and other parties that are out there. The whole idea being that we want to bring content and allow that content to move to all the different devices out there that have our DRM inside.” (Note: Bold added by me)
While I’m of the belief that there can never be too many internet video sites, I did find it curious that Hell used the word “launch” to describe their initiative. When you consider how difficult it’s been for businesses to gain traction in the online video space, it’s a little surprising that DivX wouldn’t be using Cinema Now’s own flagship website as their distribution system.
What the need for a brand new site reveals about DivX content initiatives is a fatal flaw in their Hollywood ambitions. Even with a third tier internet video provider, they can’t convince Cinema Now to incorporate DivX into their main site, because they’ll never be able to get a license from all of the content providers.
Even if they could get a couple more studios on board, their lawsuit with UMG will effectively torpedo any hope of them ever being able to offer a comprehensive catalog to consumers. If you think UMG has any intention of backing down on this one, take another look. Read through DivX’s latest dust up over whether or not UMG should be allowed to use Audible Magic on Stage6′s 60 terrabyte database and form your own conclusions as to how far UMG seems willing to take this.
In the past, DivX management has argued that access to premium content was a key component to their growth, but at the Thomas Weisel investor conference, Hell backed away from previous comments.
“this space does I think take some time to play out, I think that there’s a lot of interesting opportunities out there right now in the premium space, but they’re taking time to really play out, so we’re making sure to pace ourselves in this space and not get ahead of the market”
Going after the studio content is a mistake in my opinion, it’s like ditching the girl you took to the prom for the cheerleader that all the jocks are already trying to make a move on. If DivX had a clean record and was bulging with cash, they might have a shot at some of that hot mainstream content, but when their P2P ex-girlfriend is more horrifying then Carrie to the content providers, it seems foolish not to stick with the girl you took to the dance.
DivX doesn’t need Hollywood content, they need consumers to DEMAND support for DivX in their consumer electronics. Supporting the dark side of the content business wouldn’t earn them any friends in Hollywood, but it would win them the hearts of consumers and would rebuild their moat in high definition.
One of the biggest challenges that Blu-Ray players have faced, isn’t so much the high cost of the hardware device, but the extra money that studios are insisting for Blu-Ray content. DivX could turn themselves into a recession play if they’d be more vocal about advertising the “free” content that people can use on their devices. As Paul Sweeting so aptly put it earlier this year, “hardware makers are adding all sorts of other gimmicks to their Blu-ray players, too, from wireless connectivity, to portability, to, wait for it…VHS playback. Yep, anything to try to avoid slashing the price of players. And anything to try to give consumers options beyond paying $30 for Blu-ray movies.”
Instead of promoting their latest licensing scheme as an H.264 solution, DivX should be pointing out that DivX Plus certification offers “Blu-Ray quality” high definition without this $30 cost. Again, it wouldn’t help their content negotiations, but it would help drive consumer demand back to DivX Plus devices, which is what ultimately drives CE interest and powers DivX’s business.
Content deals make sense as a way to extend their eco-system, but only if it’s on DivX terms. Instead of begging studios for access, DivX should be developing their consumer pipeline and rewarding the content companies who recognize the benefit of being able to access millions of consumers at their television sets. DivX greatest opportunity is the caos caused by Hollywood’s licensing terms. If they go through official channels, it will be years before they can reach their core fans, but if they fight against the system, they will be the only international solution for a very long time.
How much buzz could DivX get, if they actually spoke out about their lawsuit against UMG or if they ran some kind of “pirate” friendly promotion like giving free ISOhunt toolbar installations, while trying to find a replacement for Yahoo! These moves wouldn’t make them any money, but it would be a clear signal about who their end customer really is. DivX does almost zero marketing because their consumers have built their brand. By going hostile against Hollywood, DivX would magnify the strength of their signal. When consumers show passsion for the DivX brand, CE companies will quickly fill the void.
Fat Tube and little DivX
DivX other big “growth” initiative has also turned out to be a flop. Despite two years of pitching the concept, DivX has yet to see Connected integrated into other consumer electronics. The sad part is, that I believe Connected could radically transform DivX’s value proposition.
Currently, if you want to play a DivX movie on a DVD player, consumers must find the content, transfer it to a portable storage device (i.e. burn a DVD or move the file onto a memory stick) and then physically transport the media to their DVD player. If you’re a hard core fan, it’s worth going through all this trouble to get access to your media, but I’d be shocked if more than 5% of users were taking advantage of this feature.
The beauty of the Connected business model is that it dramatically simplifies the process. If consumers buy a TV that is powered by DivX Connected, they’ll get curious as to how to take advantage of the functionality. Not everyone will adopt DivX, but if even 25% of those customers plug their television into the internet, it would drive mass adoption for DivX content.
Compared to their DVD licensing, DivX Connected could have an atomic impact on the content industry. Make no mistake about it, if Connected takes off, it will be a weapon of mass piracy from the studio perspective. Because Connected makes it so easy to access your content, it has the potential to turn mainstream customers into rabid file sharing animals. Why it hasn’t already taken off remains a mystery to me, but it could have a serious impact on the demand for DivX, if they can ever get it released into the wild.
Last fall, I had the opportunity to meet Hell in person and I asked him whether or not he felt that the premium they were asking for Connected had anything to do with manufacturer resistance.
His response was “I wouldn’t attribute it to the pricing, I think it’s more an issue of implementation and the fact that a lot of these guys are still trying to figure out what they’re doing there. They either have their own initiatives or they’re confused about it, they want to try X, they want to try Y, anything that’s out there to figure out what it’s all about and in my mind it’s a lack of coherent focus and understanding by the CE partners.”
Since then, CES has come and gone, but it looked pretty clear to me that the CE industry isn’t all that confused about their connected television plans. The fact that DivX hasn’t been able to get their product in the door may or may not have something to do with their pricing, but deep discounting may be their best option for jump starting the program again.
In 2002, DivX was struggling to convert their company into a licensing business. Manufacturers were skeptical that consumers would pay extra for the support. To prove the value of DivX certification, DivX signed a licensing agreement with a little know third tier DVD maker known as KISS. It was officially certified in August 2003. The product, immediately began to pick up buzz and less than six months later, Phillips signed on to have DivX included in their own DVD players as well. After Phillips made their move, other CE companies were forced to follow and by mid 2004, DivX DVD players were pretty much available anywhere on the globe. To this day, the Phillip’s DVP642 remains one of the most reviewed DVD players on Amazon.
A couple years after DivX helped to put Kiss on the map, Cisco bought them out for over $60 million. I would argue that there are many similarities between Divx’s initial efforts to convince DVD player manufacturers to licensing their technology and their current struggles in the Connected market. Rather then continuing to hold out for a premier deal, DivX would be well served in signing a teaser deal with a small television provider. When large CE companies see proof that DivX Connected can move TV sets, they’ll quickly begin signing contracts to ensure that they remain competitive. While heavy discounting is less than desirable from Divx’s perspective, getting more Connected devices in the wild, would at least give them an opportunity to prove that there’s still value in the DivX brand.
Death of a Salesman
While I support discounting when it helps to secure DivX’s moat, it’s hard to be encouraged by the cracks that we’re seeing in their value proposition.
To help take a closer look at DivX’s pricing erosion, I reached out to Jack Wetherill from Futuresource Consulting for data on global DVD player sales. According to Mr. Wetherill, “DVD players in their broadest sense (ie set-top players, recorders, integrated home theatres, DVD/VHS combos and portable DVD players) totaled 122m in 2006 and 127m in 2007. We expect the market to level off at 127m in 2008, although year end numbers are still being finalised.”
When DivX first went public, the company said that they had a 25% penetration rate in the DVD player market. This translated into approximately $47 million in core licensing revenue for 2006 or approximately $1.54 per DivX certified device.
In 2007, DivX grew their global DVD player market share to 37%, which translated into approximately $66 million in core licensing revenue or $1.40 per unit.
At the Thomas Weisel Technology conference, DivX said that they’ve now captured 50% of the DVD player market, but according to their own projections they are only expected to grow their core licensing business by 13% in 2008. With core revenues around $75 million, this would suggest that DivX is now earning a unit licensing fee of $1.18 per certified device. A decline of approximately 23% in pricing power since the company went public.
When you consider that consumer trends have been much kinder to upscaling DVD players (where you almost always find DivX) vs. traditional DVD players and when you consider that DivX’s core revenue numbers include other electronic categories and Main Concept revenue, one could argue that these calculations are much more conservative then the actual results.
DivX has always said that they provide volume discounts to partners, but with over half the market now captured, it would appear that DivX’s DVD upside is somewhat limited.
Saving Private DivX
Along the way, DivX has made their fair share of mistakes, but they’ve also achieved tremendous wins as a result of the risks that they’ve taken. Compared to the mainstream studios they may only be a tiny mouse, but when you look at affect that their technology has had on the media landscape, it’s clear that they’ve been able to frighten the Hollywood elephants.
The good news is that it’s not too late to turn DivX around, but without some kind of action, I fear that DivX will remain in cruise control while their franchise continues to lose value. What does DivX need to do in order to return to their glory days of growth? It all comes to restoring confidence in the company.
First and foremost, DivX must put a stop to the bleeding from employees leaving the company. Given their labor issues, I don’t believe that this can be accomplished without replacing their management team, so I believe that new leadership needs to be a top priority.
Once a new team is in place, I would take .25 cents worth of earnings and commit to investing it in DivX’s growth. DivX’s employees are more accustomed to the culture of a start up then a publicly traded company. DivX should be playing to these strengths. Spend $500k per month building out new businesses. Adopt a Google model where employees are encouraged to spend 15% of their time thinking outside the box. Become a technology incubator with the long term goal of spinning off divisions when the markets recover. Start funding a profit sharing contribution to the company’s retirement plan, so that DivX’s success is shared by everyone instead of those lucky enough to get options. Take the time to listen to your employees and address their concerns.
Secondly, DivX must restore faith to their investor base. New leadership could help to accomplish this, but it will likely take more than promises of growth, to soothe the rattled nerves of their investors. Reinforce DivX’s long term commitment to shareholders by paying a .25 cent dividend as a way to reward investors while they wait for evidence of a turnaround. Taxes on a dividend would be better avoided through a buyback, but further buybacks would only reward short term shareholders and would increase volatility by reducing an already low share count. With a 5% yield, a dividend should help to establish a floor on DivX’s share price until earnings multiples expand back to growth levels.
Finally, restore confidence in your consumer base by speaking out for consumer rights. Use the UMG trial as a way to create passion in your fans and to drum up support for digital rights. Squeezing marketing leverage from the lawsuit would at least help to justify the costs involved with going to trial. Focus on Divx Plus’ quality advantage for HDTV consumers. Instead of throwing good money after bad, abandon your content plans until you have better leverage. Use small independent content providers to show how powerful DivX user base can be to progressive studios. Sign a sweetheart deal with a small CE television manufacturer to put pressure on the rest of the market.
If investors do nothing, DivX won’t necessarily go bankrupt, but it will torpedo their brand and market position. DivX CFO Dan Halverson said that their #1 goal in 09′ is to protect the balance sheet. This may seem prudent during such difficult economic times, but sleepwalking through a format change won’t position DivX for the long term. There will be a time for Divx to cash in on all of their hard work, but to try and do so at such a crucial point in the digital transition seems foolish and short sighted.]]>
Earlier this week, Ubergizmo broke the news that DivX has officially updated their Connected software to include support for flash video. With 98% of the world’s computers already using flash, this may not seem like a big deal, but when you consider that 0% of the world’s televisions support flash, this really is groundbreaking.
Along with the update, DivX also released several plugins for their Connected device. These plugins add support for Vimeo, Daily Motion, YouTube and for the first time ever, Hulu all on your TV set. After playing around with the update, I created a video of the software in action. In the clip, I detail the basic features of DivX Connected and give you the very first look at Hulu Connected in action.
I hope to provide an even more detailed review in the future, but this news was simply too exciting to ignore. If you haven’t already checked out DivX Connected, I would encourage you to take a closer look. There are a lot of media bridge devices out there, but few of them have seen the kind of support that DivX has been able to generate from the open source community. Between the work that the community is doing with the Connected SDK and the work that DivX continues to do behind the scenes, they’ve managed to turn a very niche product into one of the most robust consumer electronic devices on the market without Connected customers having to buy new equipment. Considering that Connected has been out for less then a year, it’s remarkable to see how far the product has come in such a short time. I hope that you enjoy the video and that you’ll stay tuned for a more detailed analysis later on.]]>
Good news web video fans. Hot off the
presses Doom9′s forums, we learn that the upcoming release of DivX 7 is going to support the Matroska video format! Now I know that many of you are probably asking yourself Matroskwho?, but believe me when I tell you that this is a big deal for both DivX and Matroska fans.
A DivX / Matroska hook up will not only give web video creators even more options over how they want to present their content, but it will also ensure that consumers are able to take advantage of these advanced features with their favorite consumer electronic products. In the past, Matroska fans have had to go through a painful and complicated process in order to get their MKV files to play nice with their DivX hardware devices, but with the 7.0 release, it should be as easy as hitting play on DivX 7.0 gadgets.
So What Exactly Is Matroska?
Matroska is an open standards project that is aiming to replace existing media formats like AVI, ASF, MOV, RM, MP4, and MPG. The project had their official launch in February of 2006 and while it may not be the most well known video container, they’ve still been able to rack up over 3 million downloads since that time. While you can find many different genres utilizing the Matroska format, it’s seen it’s strongest support from the Anime community, which tends to be one of the earliest adopters for web video advancements.
In the past, Matroska’s popularity has been limited because there are very few devices that allow you to watch the MKV files outside of your computer, but the 7.0 rollout should give the format a huge boost. According to the Doom9 post announcing Matroska support, it doesn’t sound like older DivX DVD players will be able to support the .MKV format, but I bet it won’t take long before the PS3 updates their firmware to offer support. This would give Sony a big advantage over Microsoft, among the millions of fans who are passionate about the file format.
At first glance, it’s easy to mistake Matroska as a competing video format to DivX, but in reality it’s a different animal entirely. DivX is a file compression format that helps to reduce the size of your video files with minimal impact on quality, whereas Matroska is a container that can hold many different video compression schemes. To use an analogy from the DVD world, DivX would be the actual videos that you see when you watch your DVDs whereas, Matroska would be like a blank DVD. In and of itself, a blank disc doesn’t contain any data, but by inserting DivX or H.264 into the Matroska container, it allows you to enjoy a more interactive video experience.
In his post announcing Matroska support, DivX team member DigitAl56K discussed the balance that DivX has tried to maintain between supporting high end features and also keeping it inexpensive for CE partners to be able to decode the video files.
“It’s important to remember that what brought compatibility across many devices for DivX 5 and 6 was balancing certain bitstream properties so that we allowed for efficient coding with a standard that many devices could work to adhere to. Nothing prevents manufacturers from going above and beyond if they choose to – it happens today. What is important is that there is some known baseline that is consistently implemented and thoroughly tested so that you know if you adhere to it during content creation your file is going to play reliably on any certified device.
If you think back seven or eight years DivX was really the first company to try to find a standard that was designed around bridging the gap between high quality video on the Internet and the general consumer in the CE space. To do this we had to constrain certain properties of the encoder and there was a lot of pushback from many people who wanted an unconstrained MPEG-4 ASP format. I think that now there is a clear precedent that shows what can be achieved if we can find a good compromise.”
What About .AVI?
In the past, DivX has supported the .AVI container for their files, but .AVI does have some limitations. Most notably, it doesn’t support high def content encoded in the H.264 format. Perhaps even more importantly, .AVI doesn’t allow you to insert non-video data into the container.
Matroska on the other hand, not only supports H.264, but it also allows you to include data files with your videos. This means that you can create a video file that includes options like DVD menus, closed captioning data and subtitles for global audiences. It also allows you to include multiple video files into a single download. This would allow a content creator to take one of their popular videos and bundle less well known content along with it. Whether it’s including things like Director commentary and bonus scenes with a download or having the ability to attach an upcoming pilot episode to a more popular season finale download, there are many different ways that content creators can leverage this technology in order to create a more compelling video experience for their fans.
What Are The Drawbacks to Matroska?
Before you start ditching .AVI for .MKV there are a few things that you should consider. So far, we don’t really know when DivX 7.0 will be released, so it may be awhile before you can actually play your Matroska files on your TV. FWIW, I did notice that DivX recently started hosting Stage7.DivX.com on their servers, but the web extension currently redirects back to their main site.
Another limitation of the Matroska file is that you need to have a decent computer, in order to be able to playback your files. If your computer is more three years old, you are probably better off sticking with the .AVI format to ensure a smooth experience.
Whether or not you use the Matroska format, DivX’s decision to support the container will have big implications on the future of video downloads. By working with CE manufacturers to ensure that their processors are powerful enough to decode the format, DivX is paving the way to bring new interactive services to the video download market.]]>
As the P2P networks developed, DivX and it’s open source cousin XviD, became an important resource for file sharers. Initially, my own interest in DivX was driven by it’s technological advantages over other video formats, as well as the wide availability of DivX content on the grey market, but as compression technology has evolved, my reasons for using DivX have changed as well. Since I’m no longer on a dial-up network, compression is less important then what I can actually do with my videos.
As DivX gained in popularity, they were able to forge agreements with consumer electronic manufacturers that allowed you to play DivX files on a wide range of devices. Even though, H.264 is a superior standard for internet video, I still prefer DivX files because I know that I’ll be able to play them on the hardware devices that I own.
By creating an eco-system that supports portability, DivX has been able to lock me into their format in the same way that Apple has been able to use iTunes to keep their customers buying iPods instead of mp3 players.
As H.264, Microsoft, Apple and Adobe all continue to creep into DivX’s territory, there has been a lot of concern over how DivX would respond to these competing threats. Microsoft’s approach has been to batten down the hatches by developing their proprietary Silverlight codec. By retaining full control over the video format, they are able to convince people to buy as many Microsoft supported products as possible. These extra restrictions increase the appeal of Silverlight for DRM hungry Hollywood studios, but it also frustrates their customers in the process. Incompatible file formats are the reason why services like Netflix’s Watch Now doesn’t get along with Apple. Since Microsoft (and Apple) refuse to open up their codecs, it gives them a monopoly on the hardware that is allowed to support their video files.
Apple has at least opened up their system a little bit by adding support for the H.264 format, but they’ve still chosen to wrap their h.264 files inside of the Quicktime container. This prevents other companies from supporting Apple H.264 content, without obtaining a license for Quicktime first. This helps to open up Apple’s eco-system to alternative video formats, but still gives Apple control over the companies that are allowed to play nice with
their your media.
Similarly, Adobe has also forged agreements to support H.264 inside of flash, but if you want to take your Flash H.264 files portable, you’ll need a device that can support the Flash format. To their credit, Adobe has done a good job of building momentum for downloadable flash by supporting open source initiatives, a new DRM system, and by removing license fees for mobile providers, but despite their early traction with these efforts, there are still very few hardware devices that are actually capable of playing portable flash content.
With so many companies pursuing proprietary video strategies, one would expect DivX to be focusing on locking consumers into the DivX format, but like most things having to do with DivX, their strategy for dealing with the next generation of codecs is also built on a system of openness.
We got our first real glimpse of this strategy last November when DivX announced that they had acquired Mainconcept for $22 – $28 million. The Mainconcept acquisition gave DivX an immediate footprint in the H.264 space, but it also raised some important questions about how DivX could maintain a monopoly on their community, while supporting a format that is widely available to competitors.
Interestingly enough, while discussing H.264 on their latest conference call, DivX CEO Kevin Hell pointed out that the current state of H.264 really isn’t all that different from the MPEG-4 standard that DivX was built on.
“Looking forward, a real opportunity exists for DivX to emerge as the consumer face of H.264, serving as a trusted brand for users who don’t want to concern themselves with underlying formats or technologies. In fact, the current H.264 market resembles in many ways the early stages of MPEG-4 market.
When DivX first emerged seven years ago there were number of different and incompatible MPEG-4 implementations available. Through our strong consumer adoption and the creation of the DivX certification program, we were able to simplify the experience for consumers and provide a solution that just works across any device. We plan to repeat that strategy by incorporating broad H.264 support into both our software and consumer electronics offerings under the DivX brand. We are on track to release a new version of our software in 2008 that supports H.264 and then extend that support to consumer electronic devices that are likely to hit the market in 2009. We believe that this development will help move the DivX brand beyond one single format and toward promise of support for any video content, on any device.”
DivX’s evolution towards H.264 won’t be a clean and easy transition, but it is the right direction for the company. If they can successfully integrate H.264 into their certification program, it will reduce the threat of their codec becoming obsolete and will highlight their certification process as being the real value added for consumer device manufacturers.
Instead of trying to educate consumers on the differences between MPEG-4 Part 2 vs. MPEG-4 AVC (H.264), CE manufacturers can slap the DivX label onto their devices and consumers will know that it will support their digital video libraries without complications. In fact, during the Q&A section of their conference call, DivX discussed the possibility of pushing this envelope even further by adding Flash support to their certification program.
“In terms of how we think about Flash more broadly, the vast majority of content that is downloaded today is in DivX format or variations of the DivX format, so we don’t see that as being a threat in terms of the use case that we’re really providing, which is high quality content delivered through the internet and then played back on a variety of devices. To the extent that Flash starts to get traction in terms of files that are downloaded at high quality and based on the terms, it would be something that we could actually extend into and offer into our certification program as well and that’s what we’d be looking to do.”
Part of what makes DivX such a difficult company to pin down, is their ability to take competitors and turn them into partners. On one hand, Microsoft is one of the biggest threats to DivX, but if they can get them to extend DivX support to the Xbox, they could become an important customer.
Adobe is currently using Mainconcept to power their H.264 support, but they are also trying to establish their own format as the new standard for internet delivered video. These complex relationships are enough to make anyone’s head spin, but DivX has a way of getting their partners to look at the glass half full side of the equation.
On one hand, It’s hard for me to believe that Adobe would be all that enthusiastic about giving up control over their flash content, but on the other hand, a DivX partnership would create a powerful competitor to Apple and Microsoft’s closed systems.
Adobe would gain access to an established community of video fans and would have one more platform that could drive demand for Flash content. Instead of having to worry about the lack of downloadable flash content, they could leverage DivX’s popularity, while slowly introducing their own standard for web video. While I doubt that older DivX devices would be able to support Flash with a firmware update, any new DivX devices would be able to support their content.
For DivX, they would be able to increase the appeal of their brand by offering support for the next generation of internet video. They could also use Adobe DRM as a way of bypassing studio approval for DivX content. While DivX did mention plans to update their DRM later this year, getting in through Adobe’s backdoor could be a lot easier than buying off the studios. According to DivX’s 4th quarter 10k filing, they paid Sony $1.5 million and gave them 100,000 warrants at a strike price of $16.14, in order to get the studio to bless the DivX format. While it’s possible that DivX plans on buying off all of the studios, this could get expensive really quick, if DivX is serious about going legit.
For consumers, it would be the biggest win of all. Instead of being locked into a single file format, they would have the flexiblity to adopt alternative standards without having to abandon their current media libraries. This would pressure Microsoft and Apple to open up their hardware, instead of maintaining data silos.
It’s hard to judge how serious DivX is about adopting flash support from just a few comments, but even beyond flash, having support for multi-formats adds real value to their brand. As new forms of digital transmission unfold, DivX is in a position to attach their brand to a much larger category of web video.
Some of the niche video formats don’t have the ability to negotiate partnerships with the device manufacturers directly, but through DivX could gain access to a much larger audience. If DivX certification suddenly meant that Matroska containers could play on DivX devices, it would open up another community that DivX could tap into and it would change how Matroska fans think about the DivX brand.
Bringing other formats into the DivX program, would add to DivX’s cost of revenue, but it would make DivX certification more valuable to their CE partners. I may enjoy dissecting the nuances between the various competing video formats, but most consumers don’t want to think about it. They want to be able to play whatever file they have without converting it into a single format. By focusing on supporting as many formats as possible, DivX may end up competing with their own eco-system, but they’ll also expand their reach in the process. By taking DivX beyond the codec, it allows their community to move forward with the future, while hanging onto the treasures from the past.
Disclosure – I own shares of Netflix]]>
This isn’t the first time that someone has tried to hype the launch of a Stage6 replacement. As soon as Stage6 announced their shut down, there was a flurry of fake Stage6 clone announcements. Most of those sites fizzled out before they even got started.
NewStage6.com was the first “replacement” to pop up on my radar. Initially they had a timer counting down until their launch, but today, the site is all but empty. Highlol.com was another website that tried to create buzz around the Stage6 collapse. They promised free HD DivX downloads, but there still aren’t any videos on the site today.
Having already been burned a couple of times, you can understand why I tend to be skeptical about these sorts of promises. With DivX Inc. having come out and denied any affiliation with the site, I can’t help but wonder how far they will let this get before they try to shut it down. On the other hand, because DivX benefits from having more of their content out there, maybe they are really better off ignoring it. Still, if DivxIT does gain traction, DivX might not be so happy about someone copying their site, especially when they don’t seem willing to sell it to begin with. If DivX does try to go the hostile route, I think that they may be up against more than they realize.
According to my sources, the creator of DivxIT is a part of the social revolution group, Anonymous. I wasn’t able to confirm whether DivxIT is the brainchild of a solitary fan or if it is part of the larger movement, but I do think its worth noting that Stage6 was hacked earlier this year. Whoever hacked the site posted membership information online, but I don’t know whether or not they would had access to the GUI. April 29th may still end up being a bust or just a cheap knock off, but I wouldn’t be shocked if this turns out to be an exact replica of the Stage6 website.
I was also able to learn that prior to setting his sights on web video, DivxIT’s mystery founder also created the MyVideoTab.com website. MVT looks like a great resource for anyone who is interested in learning how to play cover songs off of the internet, but its ownership is also shrouded in mystery.
Even before Stage6 shut down, there was already a Stage6 clone in China, but trying to watch videos from the US brings back terrible flashbacks of 26k dial up connections. If I was going to launch my own clone, I would have gone with the 6egats.com domain instead, but someone beat me to that one already. We may end up getting punked with some wacky Scientology video on the 29th, but it will be interesting to see how this ends up playing out.
Update – So much for my conspiracies about black helicopters. It looks like DivxIT and DivX have worked out a deal for the new site. DivX must have asked them to change the name to something less confusing though because the new site will now be launched at Vreel.net. The launch was also postponed until May 6. On the Vreel website they have a FAQ where they say that their “database will be built from the ground up from day one onwards.” They also thank DivX for being cool about working out a deal with them.]]>
Over the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about DivX’s decision to close down Stage6. When I first heard the news, I wasn’t sure how to feel about the decision. On one hand, I believe strongly in the free market system and when DivX choose to go public, they took on an obligation to look after their shareholder interests.
By turning to the public DivX was able to raise more than $140 million in cash from investors who believed in the future of the company. Having access to this kind of capital opened a lot of doors for DivX, but it also came with strings attached. While it’s easy to blame DivX’s insiders for pulling the plug, without their initial support, DivX never would have been able to create Stage6 to begin with. I disagree with the final decision to shut the site down, but I can at least understand the economic realities that drove the decision to remove Stage6 from the core business.
On another hand, I was a fan of DivX long before their IPO and a loyal member of the Stage6 community. Without DivX’s community, they never would have succeeded in the first place and to abandon their fans over corporate profits speaks volumes about the priorities behind the decision makers at the helm of the company. While the cold hearted capitalist in me has no moral high ground to stand on, the fan in me can’t help but be heartbroken by the realization that DivX may have lost their soul in the course of going public.
I’ve been using Stage6 from the very beginning and while its always had its fair share of eccentricities, I’ve found that it’s gotten better and better as the site has developed.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve been able to watch “web” videos on my 60″ television, I’ve been able to discover high quality original content that is more relevant to me, then anything on cable and I’ve even been able to connect directly with the artists who I’ve admired. When the history of Stage6 is finally written, it will be easy to be distracted by Stage6′s problems with piracy or the politics at the corporate level, but to see those independent artists lose this platform is the real tragedy behind the Stage6 story.
Seeing DivX shut down Stage6 has been tough, but watching the fallout from has been even more depressing. Initial reports blamed lack of traffic as the reason behind Stage6′s failure Silicon Valley Insider’s headline on the story read “YouTube Kills Another Rival.” In Gizmodo’s coverage of the news they write “You may only be vaguely aware of DivX’s Stage 6 video site (which probably explains why it wasn’t successful)”
The problem with this theory is that Stage6′s traffic was actually quite impressive. If anything, Stage6 was a victim of its own popularity. From the get go, DivX tried to rein in the growth of the site, but in the end, high quality downloadable video proved too compelling to stop the explosion in their traffic.
DivX first launched Stage6 in August 2006. Initially, it was intended to be a modest experiment where DivX could showcase their technology. After two months and very little marketing, traffic to the site was already in the “hundreds of thousands user range.” On DivX’s first conference call with investors, Jordan Greenhall told analysts that “in 2007 we have specifically modeled Stage6 to spend no more than $5 million, until and unless we specifically decide to do otherwise.”
Had Stage6 remained underground, DivX would likely have treated the site as a minor marketing expense, but as word about the site leaked out, it created momentum that DivX was powerless to stop.
At the time, $5 million in budgeting seemed appropriate, but even Greenhall couldn’t have anticipated how popular Stage6 would turn out to be and by the end of 2006, Stage6′s traffic was clocking in at 2.4 million unique visitors per month. By February of 07′ Stage6 hit 3 million uniques and 2 months later, traffic was at 4.3 million visitors.
By July Stage6 traffic hit 10 million visitors and it was clear that DivX had tapped into something very powerful. In the first six months of 2007, Stage6 had already burned through the $5 million that they had budgeted and expenses were continuing to climb. In order to better capitalize on their Stage6 asset, DivX announced plans to divest the business and Jordan Greenhall agreed to step down as CEO, under the guise that he would take control of the new Stage6 entity.
By the 3rd quarter of 07′, DivX was spending $4 million a quarter with about 2/3rds of the expense going towards bandwidth. To help control these costs, DivX started an aggressive campaign to remove porn and copyrighted content from their servers, but their efforts were of limited success. When they updated their web player to block certain sites from playing Stage6 content, the pirates were quick to point out that users could get around this restriction by installing older versions of the software. When they started to aggressively remove copyrighted content, people built automated uploading tools that where able to overwhelm the Stage6 staff. Their efforts did help to slow down the growth rate at the site, but by October traffic had still risen to 11.4 million visitors.
With traffic continuing to rise, DivX warned investors that they were budgeting another $6.5 – $10 million in Stage6 expenses for the 4th quarter/second half of 2008. When DivX finally pulled the plug on Stage6, they had likely spent $17 – $20 million on the “experiment” and had over 19 million unique visitors to show for it.
To help put this growth into perspective, 19 million uniques is roughly two thirds the number of US visitors that YouTube was getting when they were acquired by Google for $1.6 billion in stock.
With DivX facing the prospect of having to fund another $20 million in 08′, just to keep Stage6 running, I’m not surprised that the traffic eventually proved too bitter a pill for shareholders to swallow. From the outside, its easy to blame YouTube for Stage6′s demise, but in reality, the site was far more popular than most observers realize.
Given the growth trajectory and the size of the Stage6 community, I had expected that Stage6 would have no difficulty in raising capital to fund the venture, but in December DivX unexpectedly announced Greenhall’s resignation from the board of directors and warned that the Stage6 divestiture would not take place in the time frame given to investors.
At the time, I had a lot of trouble making heads or tales of this announcement and it wasn’t until Michael Arrington leaked the sordid details behind the breakdown of Stage6, that I realized the significance of Greenhall’s departure. According to Arrington, DivX had raised commitments for $27 million in capital at a $90 million valuation. Given that my own internal valuation had pegged the site at $85 million, it would appear to me, that this was a fair valuation for both DivX shareholders, as well as Stage6 investors. Why this deal broke down, isn’t exactly clear and the devil really is in the details, but Arrington pins the blame on massive egos getting in the way of shareholder interests.
“At a meeting in late November the DivX board was asked to approve the spinoff and venture financing. But at the last minute the board decided to cancel the spinoff and retain control of Stage6. Itâ€™s not clear why they did this – perhaps they were surprised at the valuation and wanted to keep control of the assets. Or perhaps the revenue from Stage6 was too material for them to let it go over the long run. From what we hear a massive battle of egoâ€™s ultimately killed the deal. But when the decision was made, the key Stage6 founders resigned.”
Arrington speculates as to why DivX’s board turned down the offer, but the reasons he cites don’t really mesh with what the company was trying to do from a financial perspective. It could be that DivX’s board simply didn’t like the terms of the deal or that the financing was never really in place to begin with, but my own conspiracy theory is far more insidious.
I think that the board wanted out of DivX and engineered a coup to take over control of the company.
Greenhall always had grand visions for DivX and clearly wasn’t afraid to take risks. Starting Stage6 was both a brilliant and stupid move on his part. In a very short period of time, he created a valuable asset for the company, but it’s cost structure punished shareholders who didn’t buy into his long term vision. The very reckless nature that was crucial to his success as an entrepreneur, understandably made Wall St. more than a little nervous.
Knowing that Greenhall would never willingly cede control, the board tempted him by offering him control over the Stage6 spinoff. Stage6 was Greenhall’s brainchild to begin with and the bait proved more than he could resist, so in July 2007, he stepped aside as CEO to begin raising funds for the venture. Initially, I don’t think that the board planned on shutting down Stage6, but when financing failed to materialize, they ran out of patience and began to dismantle the team behind the community. When Greenhall found out about their plans, his emotions likely got the better of him and after cornering himself into an ultimatum, he was tricked into giving up the little remaining control that he had left.
While there is no way to know the exact details behind what really happened, amidst the backdrop of the Stage6 revolt, there were two noteworthy public filings that hinted of the trouble brewing in Shangri La.
The first was the revelation that Insight Venture Partners had unloaded their shares on the open market. The second was an amendment adopted by the board that provides significant financial incentives for management to engineer a sale of the company.
At the time, I had trouble reconciling these two filings because if DivX’s board was trying to shop the company, then it wouldn’t have made sense for Insight Ventures to bail out of the stock. Given what we now know about the Stage6 implosion, it doesn’t surprise me that Insight Ventures took the quick exit on this one.
One of the more interesting clauses buried in the change in control agreement is a provision that limits the rights of shareholders to elect new leadership at the board level. If a majority of the incumbent directors are replaced within an 18-month period, it triggers a provision that would cost DivX shareholders dearly. With 3 of the original board members having now resigned, it doesn’t surprise me that the board back dated the agreement prior to Greenhall leaving, so that Hell’s appointment to the board would count against this limit.
It’s easy to overlook this fine print as business as usual, but I think the board implemented these measures to ensure that they would remain in control, in the event that DivX’s long term shareholders objected to their short sighted decisions.
No one enjoys having their dirty laundry aired publicly and it’s easy to get distracted by the drama surrounding the closure of Stage6, but I think it’s important for investors to look past the soap opera and focus on what these decisions tell you about the priorities of DivX management. It’s hard to know the exact details behind Stage6′s failure, but there are a few facts that you can verify.
Whether intentionally or by accident, the DivX board removed Greenhall as CEO. In December DivX saw a mass exodus of their founders. Why they left may be open to interpretation, but the fact that they left together underscores how significant of an event this is. Given its traffic and growth, Stage6 had real value to the right investor, yet DivX’s board wasn’t willing to take the short term earnings hit, in order to maximize the value of the asset. During the time that Stage6 was falling apart, the board adopted an executive compensation plan that encourages management to sell the company even if it means sacrificing DivX’s long term future.
Now it’s entirely possible that I’m reading too much significance into the rift between the board and the Stage6 founders, but the only justification that I can see for the board leaving this kind of money on the table would be if they were trying to dress DivX up for an acquisition. For as much as Stage6 was potentially worth, it was just as much of a liability. Spinning off the site would have allowed DivX to maximize their investment in Stage6, but it would have involved a long legal fight that would have certainly scared off potential suitors.
Figuring out a way to monetize all that traffic would have been the best solution for Divx’s long term strategic positioning, but by closing the site, DivX choose to manipulate two important financial levers instead. Not only do Stage6′s expenses now translate directly into net income for the company, but DivX has decided to use the $20 million it would have cost to keep Stage6 running to boost the price of their stock through a share buyback program.
Normally I would be a fan of these sorts of shareholder friendly initiatives, but as a growth company, I think that DivX owes more to their investors. The company is in the middle of one of the hottest sectors of the new economy and to see them use their cash to buy back stock is a startling admission of how little conviction they have in the long term potential of their business. If DivX’s management really believes the company is undervalued, then why has there only been one insider purchase over the last six months? DivX may cite maximizing shareholder value as the rationale behind these moves, but closing down Stage6 to buyback their stock reeks of desperation. I may be misjudging the board’s motivation, but I can’t help but be suspicious that the real purpose behind the buyback announcement is to boost their stock price, so that their insiders can try to unload the business.
9 times out of 10, I’d argue that having the founders leave a company is a bad sign for investors, but in the case of DivX, I don’t think that this is true. The people who really cared about the future have abandoned ship and Wall St. now controls DivX’s destiny. For investors to react to these events by selling off the stock 25%, makes very little sense.
It’s hard to know what DivX would be worth to the right buyer, but I think that their recent sell off leaves them vulnerable to a low ball offer. If you strip out DivX’s cash, they are currently trading at an enterprise value of less than $200 million, their trailing 12 month P/E is at 18.50 and they are now trading at slightly more than 2 times book. For a company bringing in $80 million a year at 90%+ gross margins, this seem ridiculously undervalued in my opinion.
Whether DivX wasted money on Stage6 or not, their current valuation completely ignores the impact that the Stage6 savings will have on their earnings and certainly doesn’t reflect the potential that DivX’s board may be open to selling to the highest bidder. When you compare DivX’s current valuation to potential suitors, it’s easy to understand why DivX’s trojan horse into the living room, would be worth a premium to the right strategic investor.
I hope that I’m wrong and that DivX’s attempts to maximize shareholder value only represents a temporary set back for their community, but when I connect the dots I see a board that is more interested in engineering short term profitability, then in making the tough decisions necessary to ensure the long term success of the business. If the board was really in DivX for the long haul, it would have been easy for them to overlook DivX’s short term valuation while they tried to find a buyer for Stage6. If their goal was really to sell the company, then it was to their benefit to sacrifice Stage6.
Hopefully, I’m wrong about their plans and DivX will refocus on bringing innovative products to the market. Still, I can’t help but fear that the breakdown of Stage6 really represents the beginning of the end for a brand that I’ve come to love. I’m in no position to pass judgment on DivX for thinking exclusively of their investors, but as a member of their community, it’s painful to lose one of my favorite web destinations over corporate profits.
DivX took a step closer to being forced to walk the plank after suffering their first legal setback in their copyright dispute with Universal Music Group. In a legal filing published late Tuesday night, Judge Dana Sabraw dismissed DivX’s request to declare Stage6 legal, ahead of their UMG piracy trial.
The dispute originally started in December 2006, when UMG notified DivX that several of their videos were showing up on their Stage6 website. In the original cease and desist letter, UMG didn’t provide DivX with a list of the infringing videos, but still demanded that DivX remove all Universal content. A month later, UMG sent a second letter, only this time identifying specific videos that they had problems with. DivX promptly removed the videos in question and didn’t hear from UMG’s legal department for another 8 months.
After this 8 month period of awkward silence, UMG approached DivX and agreed to license their content, albeit at a very steep cost. In order to atone for their past sins, UMG wanted DivX to pay them $30 million.
Sensing a shakedown, DivX balked at the deal and decided to take their chances in court. They had fully complied with all of the provisions of the DMCA and if UMG wanted to punish them, they’d need to attack the DMCA’s safe harbor provision to do it. After calling their bluff, UMG dragged their heels on filing a lawsuit, but the potential threat for conflict still created a real problem for DivX. With the company trying to spin off their Stage6 asset, these storm clouds of uncertainty cast a long shadow over the legality of their Stage6 operations.
With UMG threatening legal action against the site, DivX was forced to choose between trying to sell the asset at a discount or trying to see if they could ride this storm out. With UMG seemingly content to continue to accrue alleged damages, DivX felt compelled to ask the courts to rule on whether or not Stage6 was protected under the safe harbor provision.
DivX took a huge risk by pushing this issue. If they are right then their wager will certainly pay off. If the courts can establish the legality of their Stage6 website, it would remove a lot of the uncertainty surrounding the business and would allow potential suitors to feel more comfortable about its long term potential. If DivX is wrong though, the consequences could be severe.
Six weeks after DivX filed for declaratory relief, UMG finally made good on their threat and filed a lawsuit against DivX accusing them of piracy. By bringing DivX up on charges, they were able to successfully argue that their trial was a more appropriate venue for this question to be answered. While this does represent a set back for DivX, I doubt that the result was entirely unexpected.
Still, through legal maneuvering, UMG has been able to regain control over home court advantage and they’ve put themselves into a position where they can always settle or walk away if things start to look bad. Even if DivX sticks with the full court press, they may not end up with the declarations that they were hoping for. In the discussion section of the judgment, Sabraw sympathized with DivX, but couldn’t justify running a separate trial now that DivX is facing legal action.
“Defendants argue declaratory judgment is an incomplete remedy since this action does not include all parties to the lawsuit pending in the Central District. Furthermore, since Plaintiff cannot identify all copyrights at issue, Defendants argue the remedy in this Court is limited to adjudicating only the copyrights named.
The Court agrees with Defendants. Athough the fear of uncertain litigation may have initially justified Plaintiff in filing this action, Defendants have since filed a lawsuit in the Central District that eliminates the uncertainty. Moreover, the DCMA [sic] safe harbor analysis Plaintiff seeks here will be more completely and efficiently undertaken in the Central District, where the court will be able to determine Plaintiff’s compliance with respect to particular copyrights that Defendants identify in the course of those proceedings.”
While it may appear that DivX has lost round 1, the dismissal of this case won’t be the end of this dispute by a long shot. With the declaratory issue now out of the way, DivX will need to focus on defending themselves against UMG’s lawsuit. Even though DivX’s initial lawsuit has been dismissed, they’ll still get an opportunity to defend their website. Still, until DivX can reach some kind of resolution, the lawsuit will certainly make it more difficult for them to separate their Stage6 assets from their core business. With rising bandwidth bills, the credit crunch and legal questions surrounding this asset, it may be difficult for them to find a buyer who is willing to get involved in this kind of a dog fight.
Sensing that conditions weren’t right, DivX pulled back on their plans for Stage6 in December and in a press release announcing the resignation of Jordan Greenhall, they also warned that their Stage6 transaction wouldn’t be finished by the end of the year like they had planned. The company promised to update investors in the first quarter of 08′ and with DivX expected to report earnings soon, you can bet that Stage6 will be a hot topic on their next conference call. The plan that DivX management lays out, will be critical in determining how investors interpret their financial results.
Last quarter, investors rewarded DivX by focusing on their non-gaap growth and ignoring the Stage6 and compensation expenses. If DivX still plans on spinning off Stage6, then it’s fair for investors to ignore the rising bandwidth costs and focus on the value of the underlying asset.
If DivX’s legal battles really mean that they need to hold onto Stage6 in order to maximize its value, then investors may be in for a shock when they realize that Stage6 is really a long term investment. Facing the prospect of a drawn out legal battle, they may not take as much comfort in “one time” charges or expenses.
The answer to the Stage6 riddle isn’t an easy one, but after years of profiting from their popularity in the pirate community, it’s ironic to see DivX’s finally starting to feel some heat over the activities of their community. Even beyond the copyright liabilities, there is a significant cost for DivX to foot the bill for pirated Stage6 content and I suspect that DivX isn’t anymore enthusiastic about piracy on Stage6, than UMG is. There’s no way to know how this all will end, but I have a feeling that its going to take longer than people expect, in order to sort it all out.]]>
Over the past few months, I’ve finally started to get a feel for Media Center Vista and while I haven’t tried out every feature in the program, I have played around with it long enough to have some initial thoughts. Before I tried the software, I had low expectations, but after actually using the program, I’ve been really impressed with what the Media Center team has put together.
Media Center Vista allows you to perform some pretty advanced tasks without having to be a computer geek in order to figure out how to use it. I initially had some reservations about the user interface, but it only took about a week, before I found it growing on me. There are still improvements that Microsoft needs to make, but they’ve made a giant leap forward, compared to the original XP version.
-Media Center Vista is wicked fast at finding new programs. In the XP version, the software was painfully slow at trying to search for shows. As soon as I would start typing in the name of a show, XP would freak out from trying to sort through so much information. In Vista, the program still starts searching immediately, but the indexing has been turbocharged. Instead of having to wait for the menu, the results will appear as fast as you can type. This faster indexing shows up in a number of areas. When you are browsing, you can hit page down and scroll through programs as fast as you can read them. If you want to rearrange the priority of your recordings, you can make changes and move onto other areas of the program without having to wait forever while the system checks for conflicts.
-The interface looks fantastic. Microsoft has done a good job of creating a clean and intuitive DVR experience. The program is easy to navigate and has lots of extra features. On the surface the design appears relatively simple, but you can tell that Microsoft has paid a lot of attention to the little details. Whether it’s being able to double click on the picture in picture window, in order to bring up the full screen or being able to see the DVD art for upcoming movies, there are a lot of subtle features that make for a more enjoyable media experience.
-Vista comes with 30 second skip enabled. TiVo fans know that you can hack your remote to add this feature, but the big studios were able to scare TiVo into disabling it for the masses. In the past, I’ve never really used the 30 second skip feature because it meant giving up the skip to the end button on my remote. After spending some time with it on Media Center, I’ve been really surprised at how much I’m enjoying it. Hitting a button six times is a lot easier than trying to guess when the program is about to start again.
-There is minimal interference between you and your recordings. One of my biggest frustrations with the generic DVR was that it required too many unnecessary steps, before I could interact with my content. It felt like I had to hit ten buttons before I could schedule a movie, delete a recording or even watch a show. With Vista Media Center, it’s an entirely different story. The entire experience is built around the content that you are interacting with. You can’t do everything from all levels of the software, but each step is intuitively linked to the task that you are focused on. If you are watching a TV show, then by right clicking you can delete the program or burn it to DVD. If you are playing music it’s one click to pause, skip, repeat, shuffle . . . .
-You can watch TV while surfing the web. Media Center is really designed for the living room, but I’m primarily using it in a desktop setting. I didn’t think that I’d watch a lot of TV at my desk, but I’ve found it to be the perfect compliment to streaming Netflix and YouTube. This isn’t ideal for shows with intense action and complex story lines, but its perfect for tuning into the news when you see a story break online or for listening to late night talk shows, while you’re multitasking on the web. This feature won’t benefit you, if you plan on using Media Center on your TV, but it’s a good reason to add on a TV tuner, the next time you upgrade your PC.
-You can use the XBox360 as an extender. I’ve read a lot about the Xbox extenders, but I had never actually seen one in action. Connecting my Xbox to Media Center took an extra registration step, but it was well worth the time to get it set up. When I first heard about Microsoft’s extender strategy, I was skeptical that it would stream videos without problems or program lock ups. While I didn’t test the connection using WiFi, my experience using the Xbox was almost identical to having the PC directly connected to the TV. No lag, no stuttering, just instant access to my content on my big screen tv.
-You can watch TV while using the menus. TiVo uses picture in picture technology on their Comcast download, but you won’t find it on their stand alone DVRs. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this until I started using Vista as a DVR. Whether it’s a live show or a recording, Vista will minimize whatever program that’s on, when you want to dig deeper into the menu settings. This isn’t good if you’ve accidentally stumbled onto a football game and are desperately trying to avoid the score, but it is nice for when you’re not exactly sure what you want to watch.
-It will help you find programs that are on right now. Vista Media Center allows you to search for programs in a number of ways, but its their support for upcoming television, that impressed me the most. When it comes to searching for things like TV series, kid shows, etc., it allows you to browse alphabetically or by date. They’ve also built a separate section for movies and for sports where they’ve packed in some extra bonus content. In the TV and movies section, they offer plugins for various movie download services and in the sports section Vista will let you check the box scores or add fantasy players to track.
-You can skip automatically skip commercials. DVRs make it easy to skip commercials, but Vista Media Center takes things one step further by supporting plugins, that can edit out those pesky little ads entirely. It’s not easy to set up and it’s not something that is enabled by default, but it’s still a pretty sweet feature to add.
-You can placeshift your TV. The Slingbox is great if you have a cable DVR or a TiVo, but with Media Center you can download a free plugin that will let you watch your content wherever you can connect to the net. I haven’t actually used the program yet, but it’s still a great feature to have access to.
-You can burn DVDs. Normally, I’m pretty good about watching all of the shows that I record, but when it comes to boxing, I just don’t have time to see every fighter. It’s my favorite sport, but since I record every fight (even the ones on the Spanish channels), there isn’t enough time/hard drive space, to get caught up. Since I’ll never really know which fighters will end up making it big, I’ve decided to use my Media Center to archive all of the fights. By saving them to DVD, I should be able to go back and watch the fights that mattered.
-It supports external storage. Media Center gives you a lot of control over how you want to set up your storage. Since I’m using it as a secondary DVR, I’ve set it up to record a maximum of 100GB on my internal drive. If I need more, I can add an external drive or increase my internal hard drive allocation.
-You shouldn’t have to reboot your TV. One of the things that I love about my TiVo is that it just works. You don’t have to be a tech geek to figure it out, you plug it into your TV and it records everything. In the entire time that I’ve been a TiVo customer, I can think of very few occasions where TiVo failed to record my programing. When it comes to Media Center, it’s important to remember that it’s a PC first and a DVR second. Over the last few months, I’ve found the program to be mostly reliable, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing either. Whether it’s been dealing with poor DRM design, troubleshooting a bug that refused to let me download the guide data or having my computer crash while recording television, there have been several times where I’ve missed recordings, because of PC related problems. While I can’t blame Microsoft for all of my problems, it’s still frustrating to miss a show because of technical difficulties.
-Internet video support is weak. Media Center includes support for services like Vongo and Showtime on Demand, but it involves registering and downloading a separate program before you can get it working. As a Netflix subscriber, I was looking forward to being able to use Watch Now inside of Media Center, but Microsoft has left it up to the fans to build support for this. Microsoft includes some MSN internet video content, but they make you watch pre-roll ads before knowing whether or not it’s something that you are interested in. The Xbox may unofficially support DivX, but you can’t access it inside of media center. If you prefer to use a media extender instead, it will support your XviD files, but it’s set up to block your DivX content.
-It won’t record radio. XM may have just settled a lawsuit over their radio DVR, but recording radio shouldn’t be any different than television content. Media Center will let you listen to OTA radio, but it doesn’t let you record any of the programs.
-Fast forward is a little too powerful. It may be, that I’m just used to TiVo, but Vista’s fast forward speeds are hard to adjust to. They’ve got slow, almost fast and then it jumps to hyper speed. I can’t tell whether or not they are using a five second skip back, but when I hit play, I’m usually way past the start of the program. If you stick to the 30 second skip it’s not a problem, but it’d be nice if there was some kind of a way to adjust the timing on this.
-You can’t skip to the middle of a program. One of the things that I like about downloaded video is being able to immediately jump to the middle or the end of a program. Since this is a key feature in Window’s media player, I was surprised to see this missing from Media Center. There is also no way to jump 15 minutes ahead. If you happen to fall asleep during the middle of a program, you’re stuck with fast forwarding in order to get back to where you were at.
-You can’t rate your television. As television continues to involve, it’s becoming increasingly personal. Media Center does a good job of recording TV, but it doesn’t do a very good job of getting to know you. You can sort movies by the highest rated, but its using someone else’s criteria. Because you can’t tell Media Center what you do and don’t like, there are no suggested recordings or personalization.
-It doesn’t support auto-recording of wishlists. I’m a big basketball fan, but I’m really only interested in seeing the Laker games. Media Center will let me search for the next time that they are playing, but it won’t automatically record the game. It would be nice to be able to use media center to record programs that are customized to my interests.
Al pointed out in the comments that you can actually uses wishlists, you just need to set it up from the add recording field. Thanks for the help Al. This one definitely should go in the pro category.
-Vista’s DRM doesn’t play nice with HD. I’m still fuming over this one. I knew that recording HDTV on Vista would be a hassle, so I stuck with standard tuners when I customized my computer. After upgrading to an HD monitor, Vista disabled my Netflix Watch Now and put Media Center into lock down. If Apple’s DRM wasn’t just as bad, I would be thinking differently after this experience.
-It takes forever to burn a DVD. I was really jazzed up over being able to archive shows onto DVD, but the sluggishness of the DVD burning capabilities has me rethinking this game plan. It took me 2 and a half hours to burn a one hour program to DVD. It’d be one thing if I was using lousy hardware, but it takes less then 4 minutes for me to burn a 2 hour DivX film. It’s nice to be able to save your TV, but it should never take more time to burn the disc, than it does to watch it.
-Good for early adopters, complicated for everyone else. Vista Media Center offers a lot of unique features, but it takes too much tweaking to set these up. Placeshifting and auto commercial skipping are available, but it’s up the consumer to find and install these programs. Even if you know what you are doing, the setup can still be complicated. Instead of making consumers seek out these programs, Microsoft should be including them as part of the package. It wouldn’t be popular with the media companies, but it’d win the company a lot more fans.
-The recording quality is terrible. It’s probably not fair to compare a cablecard connected TiVo with an analog cable media center set up, but the TiVO SD recordings on my 60″ screen, look way better than the Media Center recordings on my 22″ monitor. This probably has less to do with Media Center and more to do with the tuners that I’m using, but it still takes away from the user experience. Unless you want to spend the big bucks on a cablecard media center, you may end up having to deal with poor resolutions.
-There’s no turning back once you delete – As careful as I am, sometimes my DVR instincts go on auto-pilot and I’ll accidentally delete a show before watching it. With TiVo I can recover that program, but in Media Center it is gone forever. The file isn’t even in the Recycle bin. Media Center will always ask you to confirm before deleting, but this also creates one more button to push when you are done with the shows that you have watched.
So there you have it, the good, the bad and Media Center Vista. There are some rough spots around the edges, but it really is a fantastic program. I’m hoping that we’ll see better support for HDTV and for online video as the program continues to evolve.]]>