Netflix coming to Wii

This was expected, and welcome news indeed: Netflix streaming is coming to the Wii in March.

Screw the Roku or popbox, man, between my DVD player and Wii I’ve got 95% of my bases covered now. And the Wii’s lack of HD support isn’t a big deal – for streaming, standard-def is actually better anyway, and most TV is still standard def anyway.

I think the console makers need to realize that they could basically swallow the market share of devices like Roku, Boxee, popbox, etc whole just by adding software support for video formats, a USB port, and WiFi to their next generation consoles.

I just logged into my netflix acct and reserved my Netflix Wii disc which unlocks the streaming. Ships automatically to my address! one click.

Boxee and Popbox gunning for Roku

I’ve prevously mentioned the Roku digital player as a game changer for home entertainment, but haven’t actually bought one yet. It looks now like there’s some serious competition to Roku, which is of course a good thing. The first is Boxee, which has a software-only variant you download to yor PC and also actual hardware slated for release this year. Like Roku, the Boxee box has simple connections for your TV, has built-in wifi, and USB for external drives. Boxee also has an SD card slot and intriguingly, a full QWERTY keyboard on the back of the remote. It isn’t clear if Boxee supports Netflix or the Amazon video store, but unfortunately Boxee was forced to yank Hulu support recently. Boxee is expected to cost about $200, which about twice what Roku costs.

The other challenger to Roku is popbox, which is an evolution of the Popcorn Hour box which Nick has been using (and promising to blog about for ages! *nudge* *nudge*). The popbox looks to be a simpler deice than Popcorn Hour’s flagship model the C-200, and promises support for pretty much every file format out there (including MKV, which doesn’t seem to be supported by Roku). Popbox will support netflix, and also crunchy roll which pretty much screams “otaku buy me!” – and its price is more comparable to Roku at $129 (available in March). The only downside is that it doesn’t come with wifi included, you have to shell out a little for that.

So, whats a prospective consumer like me to do? The ideal device for me would be to support every possible format (like popbox), built-in wifi (like boxee and roku), and be priced no higher than $150. And of course netflix support is the key. Its worth noting that both popbox and boxee also will have app development platforms so presumably someone could add support for other services. I also imagine that Roku isn’t going to sit back withouut any competitive response; if Roku could add MKV support then I’d probably still favor it over these other more featured, but more complicated and expensive, options. That has to be a simple firmware or software update, I imagine.

Regardless, it’s great to see how this market is coming along. With the death of disc imminent, it’s where the future is. You can easily imagine someone taking a BD player and adding a Roku to it and making a complete convergence device. In fact, what if Nintendo were to do that with Wii v2.0 – have it be a BD player like the PS3 and also support all these features in software? Given all the hype about mobile device convergence (camera+phone+PDA+apps) it makes sense that we would see a trend towards convergence in our living rooms. Theres no reason I should have to have a separate device for DVDs, games, and digital entertainment. The PS3 is closest to this now, in fact – but its expense still sets it apart. A fully converged device as I describe above, my hypothetical Wii 2.0, shoudl be priced no higher than $300 to really make inroads.

Related: article on Popbox at Electronista

the shrinking world of anime

An interesting discussion at Pete’s and Steven’s has me thinking that the trend for anime is one whihch basically dooms DVDs to extinction (and why are we even talking about VHS anymore?). The problem is not just limited to titles that aren’t available in North America, but even titles which may technically be available but utterly impractical to obtain. Case in point – my beloved, $5-from-Walmart copy of Totoro has gone missing (unwillingly, unlike last time). I decided I’d buy a new copy – preferably one with all the extras – and guess what? It’s out of print. The only way to get my Totoro fix for my kids is to download a torrent (and watch on our TV via our USB-enabled DVD player). I fully expect to buy a Roku or equivalent device this year to tap into my Netflix on-demand account, which will also open the door to torrent convenience (though the demise of Mininova is a roadblock – I’ll have to start actually participating at bakabt or some other community now). Even titles which are available at Best Buy, like the complete Kino’s Journey, are absurdly expensive and the sad reality is that the pricing of anime makes most of it out of reach for anyone who has mouths to feed and bills to pay. Without torrents, the few purchases I can afford to make – Haibane, Sugar, etc – would never have happened.

Ultimately, anime is a hobby and not a necessity. But if we are limiting anime to only those who can afford to play by the industry’s rules, then anime will die. It’s really just the torrenters keeping it alive right now. That sounds paradoxical but it’s fundamental reality about the new era of digital content. Give it away, build an audience, and then hope some of them will buy for posterity. Assuming you’re making decent quality anime in the first place…

Incidentally, this story about Boxee being forced to give up on Hulu is pretty emblematic of the thorny issues of control being fought out in the marketplace. The anime industry is just a bit player in all of this.

gaming in the cloud

Brian drew my attention to this:

Just announced at this year’s GDC, OnLive is an on-demand gaming service. It’s essentially the gaming version of cloud computing – everything is computed, rendered and housed online. In its simplest description, your controller inputs are uploaded, a high-end server takes your inputs and plays the game, and then a video stream of the output is sent back to your computer. Think of it as something like Youtube or Hulu for games.

The service works with pretty much any Windows or Mac machine as a small browser plug-in. Optionally, you will also be able to purchase a small device, called the OnLive MicroConsole, that you can hook directly into your TV via HDMI, though if your computer supports video output to your TV, you can just do it that way instead. Of course, you can also just play on your computer’s display if you don’t want to pipe it out to your living room set.

When you load up the service and choose a game to play (I’ll come back to the service’s out-of-games features in a bit), it starts immediately. The game is housed and played on one of OnLive’s servers, so there’s never anything to download. Using an appropriate input device, be it a controller or mouse and keyboard, you’ll then play the game as you would if it were installed on your local machine. Your inputs are read by the plugin (or the standalone device if you choose to go that route) and uploaded to the server. The server then plays the game just like it would if you were sitting at the machine, except that instead of outputting the video to a display, it gets compressed and streamed to your computer where you can see the action. Rinse and repeat 60 times per second.

I know Shamus is distracted right now but I can’t wait to see what he thinks.

Roku digital video player: game-changer for home entertainment

Digital video has its advantages over discs, but also suffers from a major flaw. I have to admit that (unlike others who are more diligent) I haven’t taken full advantage of the Netflix streaming video service, because I find that being tied to the PC screen just isn’t the most convenient location for watching movies. I do use Hulu.com a bit but still, it’s being tethered to the PC that really inhibits usage. I’ve found that I do watch a lot more anime now, though, because I can torrent the AVI files, put them on a USB jumpdrive, and watch them on my DVD player (which has a USB connection). However, that process is time-consuming since you need to download the whole video file before watching, and of course there’s the inconvenience (not to mention legal gray area) of finding torrents in the first place.

Roku digital video player
Roku digital video player
This is why Roku’s new digital video player
box is so exciting. Unlike the latest piece of s^&t from Sony, the Roku player is a simple and small box with the standard video outputs (component, HDMI) and an ethernet jack, plus built-in wifi. It connects to the internet over your home network, plugs into your TV, and brings Netflix streaming-on-demand and Amazon.com’s video store right to your living room. The concept works because it’s so simplistic and cleanly executed – it doesn’t do anything else. Even the remote is a piece of utilitarian art.

There are other ways to get Netflix streaming onto your television – for example, the Samsung BD-P2500 Blu-Ray player, which adds the streaming capability. But at $300, it’s three times the cost of the Roku (and doesn’t support Amazon). Amazon’s video store lets you rent or buy movies and television and rivals Hulu.com and the iTunes store for selection, so the Roku really almost replaces the need to go to a retail video rental store like Blockbuster in a way that Netflix alone never could.

If digital downloads are going to really kill off the physical-disc format, it won’t be until devices like Roku become mainstream. And at the price point of $99, that’s not too far off at all.

convenience vs cost

In an ideal world, you pay more for increased convenience. Want to save money? mow your own lawn. Have no time? Pay the local kid $20. etc.

This dynamic seems to be inverted online, however, especially with regard to digital content. Here, you pay for decreased convenience – a good example being DRM restrictions on video games, where legitimate, paid users of a game like Spore must suffer through all manner of annoying restrictions and installation limitations and game activations and whatnot. Meanwhile, anyone who downloads the cracked version off the torrents for free, gets a clean, enjoyable gaming experience unmarred by all the nonsense. Therefore we have the curious situation where anti-piracy policies serve to incentivise piracy rather than prevent it[1. Shamus Young’s ongoing DRM rants are the definitive explanation of this dynamic. I think he needs to write a book.].

A similar dynamic applies to anime, except that instead of invasive DRM you have simple expense. This is partly due to region-coding, which maintains artificial price differences between markets. It’s also due to the increasing cost of producing anime, which gets passed on to the end user. Price is not a barrier for people with steady jobs who enjoy anime as a hobby, but this probably doesn’t describe the target demographic very well. Another problem with paid, legitimate anime is that it comes mostly in DVD form, which is physical media. As such, it must be carried around, doesn’t fit in your pocket, can only be played on specific hardware and displays (ie, a TV with a DVD player attached), might scratch, etc. Even if you circumvent the expense issue by paying for a service like Netflix (which is not free, but significantly cheaper than buying anime outright), you still hae these physical media headaches to deal with. Even a completely free solution like Hulu.com ties you down, as its DRM keeps you locked into your web browser. Meanwhile, users who simply download fansubs get all the benefits – free, totally portable digital content – and even some extras (eg. superior subtitle quality). Again, the incentive on the end user is to encourage downloading rather than paying.

So the question is, who perpetuates this imbalance? Is there a way to get users to pay for convenience again? The power seems to be solely in the hands of the publishers here. There’s already a set of concrete suggestions for the gaming industry, which are eminently reasonable but probably will never be embraced. A similar set of suggestions could be crafted for the anime industry as well, but I’ll leave that to otaku who have more knowledge of the industry itself than I do.

Speaking as a consumer though, I can define convenience that I’d pay for. I currently pay Netflix $20/month, so that’s a good guideline for a budget. If I could purchase entire seasons of a given anime for $10, or individual episodes for $1, and have these come in DRM-free files that I can freely reburn to DVD for home viewing or convert to any intermediate format for whatever digital player I might choose, then I’d never need to download again. I would also pay an extra $.50/ep or $5 per season for quality fansubbing. Note that if the anime studios went DRM-free, and completely outsourced subbing to the fansub community, then the latter coudl legitimately charge for the service (which would be a true value-add).

Of course, the scheme above means someone could just seed the files they buy out to torrent. But so what? That’s what happens now, anyway. at least with my scheme, people like me pay more in. Revenue will increase, and that’s the bottom line.