Electronic Design

Universal Multimedia Player - Death By A Thousand Cuts

I tend to rant on occasion (see Why can't I build anything useful?) about the problems users and hackers encounter trying to get something that my seem simple but tends to rather hard to do. In the end it is often like hitting a brick wall. Unfortunately it is sometimes worse that you might imagine. Take the latest tussle between Comcast and Level 3 Communications (see US cable giant accused of internet video 'toll booth'). It highlights why multimedia deliver is getting worse, or at least more confusing, for consumers.

It seems that Netflix uses Level 3 for streaming movies to Netflix customers. Comcast was to increase the fees that Level 3 pays because Netflix is doing well hence more bits are being pushed through the pipes. Netflix customers who have Comcast Internet service are effectively paying multiple ways for this content and its delivery. In one sense, the customer winds up paying for everything as would be expected. On the other hand, will a customer with a different ISP or a delivery route that goes through a different set of ISPs be paying more or less than the Netflix/Comcast customers. Add tiered services to the mix that many ISPs like Comcast and Verizon are pushing and you can see the complexity.

Compounding the problem is whether even a tiered approach is going to provide a level playing field for content the consumer wants. Charging both the content provider and the content consumer could result in a case where there is a major mismatch in throughput. A customer might not be able to watch a full HD stream because there is not enough bandwidth on the content provider's side, the consumer's side or somewhere in between. This situation does not lead to happy consumers. Of course, it might lead to happy shareholders that get more money because of increased fees along the way.

What really irks me is that without true net neutrality the issues become even more murky. Keep in mind that outfits like Comcast and Verizon are also being multimedia providers. Guess who gets the business if their media pipe is larger than the competition.

Check out Electronic Frontier Foundation's website for more on net neutrality.

Censorship Challenges

Getting data through the myriad of Internet pipes is a useless exercise if the end device will not accept the content. Unfortunately being arbitrary and capricious is not limited to dungeon masters.

Take a recent Slashdot's discussion of CNN's article on Apple bans Android magazine app for example. Essentially the Apple AppStore is preventing an app from providing content to an iPhone or iPad user because of censorship. Never mind that an iPad owner may have a Motorola Droid. What's next? Not being able to watch Flash videos? Oh, wait ......

This brings me back to Silicon Dust's HD HomeRun that I used (see Hitting An HD HomeRun) in a project awhile back. It is still running but even given a FIOS fiber connection it is still channel limited. Worse, much of the content is SD or compressed HD. Only a few channels are worth watching. A forthcoming version that has CableCard support should be released soon but we will see if it is possible to record the channels I can on the Verizon HD DVR. So my MythTV system sits with a 2 Tbytes of storage while the Verizon unit is almost full with just half a dozen movies that can only be viewed on one HDTV.

I do have hopes for Intel's Smart TV, Google TV, and even Apple TV but even these suffer from limitations on content from almost all providers. I have multiple boxes connected to various TVs including one from Vudu (see Vudu: Movies On Demand) as well as a Sony PS3. At this point, the PS3 is likely to be the only thing left standing. It's multimedia delivery has improved over the years but it is still restrictive and suffers from the same type of AppStore limitation mentioned above. Too bad because almost any of the boxes I have or could get could provide media from almost all the sources available on the Internet. We'll see if anything comes even close or whether the Universal Multimedia Player appears let alone survives.

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