The more things change, the more things seem to stay the same. Over the last ten years, the internet has redefined nearly every aspect of our lives. Whether it’s how we communicate with old friends, how we get our news or how we do our shopping, I could give you countless examples of how this technology has changed the way we interact with the world.
Thinking back to when dial up was first getting started, it’s not too hard to imagine an entirely different future. You see, when internet service providers first got into the business, they didn’t want to provide unrestricted access to their subscribers. Instead, they wanted to create a massive intranet where they could charge businesses fees to reach their customers.
In this bold new world that they envisioned, people wouldn’t be buying search terms on Yahoo!, they’d buy keywords on AOL. Instead of being able to use any email provider you wanted, they would only allow you to log into Compuserve accounts. This balkanization of the internet almost succeeded and for a time, Compuserve actually ran one of the top airline ticketing services, but eventually consumers saw the forest for the trees and instead of paying $19.99 a month for a stripped down version of the world wide web, they insisted on unfiltered access to the internet.
Once a few consumers started to move, the rest of the industry followed and as a result we now have third party sites like Facebook, YouTube and blogs, that have been able to build an audience on the free and open web.
With online video still coming of age, it’s interesting to see how the same Compuservation is occurring again, except this time it’s around the television. NewTeeVee has a provocative post out where they argue that the smart television providers are becoming the new gatekeepers for content. This is better than having the cable companies control your television, but it’s is still a watered down version of what you deserve.
I don’t care whether we’re talking about TiVo, Boxee, Roku, AppleTV or any of the latest digital video solutions, all of them have placed restrictions (albeit sometimes unwillingly) over how much their customers can do with their hardware.
Some of these restrictions are because of frightened content owners. For example, customers who rent their TiVo from a cable company aren’t allowed to access Netflix because of agreements Netflix made with the studios. Some of these restrictions are because of plain old fashioned greed. Hulu has already had more than their fair share of conflicts from disabling access to their videos on devices that are designed to sit next to your TV and would love to charge hardware companies for access. Some of these restrictions are self imposed. There’s nothing stopping Apple from offering flash on their iPad, except for their own selfish desire to control 100% of their media eco-system.
Whatever the reason, no matter how you slice it, these “internet” enabled devices have all failed to actually bring the internet to your TV. Looking over the headlines from CES, it’s clear that tablets and “smart TVs” were all the rage in Las Vegas this year and while it’s neat to see content companies start warming up to these devices, if consumers are forced to continue at big media’s pace, it will take another 10 years before you’ll be able to access even 90% of the content that’s out there today.
Because of these restrictions, it’s become increasingly difficult for me to endorse these options as adequate solutions. Over the years, I’ve managed to sample and collect a large number of different media streaming devices, but by far, the most powerful digital media device that I’ve ever used was the cheapest laptop that I could buy from Walmart. Maybe I’m crazy and other people don’t actually want access to the internet on their TV, but from the very first moment that I plugged it into my television, it was just as liberating as the first time I used TiVo to free my TV.
Since almost all new laptops include an HDMI port, getting it connected to the big screen was as easy as plugging it into an HDMI cable. Not only will this setup let you access sites like Hulu without big media interfering, but I can also do PC related tasks on a big screen environment. For example, over the holidays I was able to connect to Skype and do a video chat with the entire family on the big screen. I’ve always been a fan of comic books, but the comic book experience is very different when you’re looking at the action at 40+ inches. Do you ever play video games like Axis and Allies? Being able to see the entire war map actually changes your strategy compared to when you have to view troop movements region by region.
The point that I’m trying to make is no matter how progressive and advanced these technology companies are, no matter how many “apps” developers create, until the CE industry and the content industry abandon their gateway plans, you’ll never get to experience everything that the world wide web is capable of.
Instead of navigating this minefield of short sighted media companies and a CE industry that has lost sight of who their real customers are, take my advice and buy an HDMI enabled laptop before you buy the latest and greatest half baked technology product. A cheap laptop won’t necessarily make it easy to record your broadcast television, but if you’re only going to own one media device for your TV, an HDMI enabled laptop will beat the pants off of any digital device on the market today.