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The Problem with Content Channels on Set-Top Boxes and Smart TVs

Amazon yesterday released its Fire TV, a set-top box designed to stream Amazon Instant Video, along with other services. You can use it to watch Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN, and several other services. But you can’t use it to access the movies and TV shows you bought from the iTunes Store.

On Apple’s side, their Apple TV lets you access Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN, and several other services, but not Amazon Instant Video. I have a smart TV; it’s smart enough to let me watch Netflix, but not Amazon Instant Video. I also have a Blu-ray player: a Cambridge Audio 651 BD, a high-end, multi-region, CD, DVD and Blu-ray player. This is an expensive device, but it’s designed for quality playback, and doesn’t come with apps for streaming services as cheaper Blu-ray players do.

So what’s a guy to do? I would like to watch Amazon Instant Video, which was recently introduced in the UK, where I live, but the only way I can currently do that is to either stream it from my Mac or iPad, using AirPlay, or get some kind of device that has this “channel.” I could buy Amazon’s Fire TV, but; oh, wait, it’s not available in the UK yet. I could buy a cheap Blu-ray player; that might actually cost less than Amazon’s Fire TV (when it’s released in the UK), but I would use it for nothing than than Amazon Instant Video, or maybe also use it for Netflix, instead of using my smart TV for that.

I understand that there’s a lot of competition among the different companies whose devices act as conduits for entertainment channels. But this is getting out of hand. If you want to watch a specific service — other than Netflix, which seems to be available on every device that connects to a TV — you may or may not be able to do it with your TV, Blu-ray player or other device. And things like smart TVs and Blu-Ray players rarely get updates with additional channels. So that Panasonic TV I bought last year, because it has a good picture, and was available at a good price, is well, a good TV, and not much more. If Amazon Instant Video had been available last year, I would more likely have looked for a TV that offered this service. But I’m not going to change TVs just to watch Amazon videos.

The sort of channels, or apps, that you get on smart TVs and set-top boxes should be available on all devices, if you so desire. All this fragmentation does — and, of course, this is the goal — is incite people to buy more devices. But we don’t need any more; our homes are full of devices that connect to TVs and computers. We need the One True Device that will allow us to access all these channels. Just as TVs can display all the channels available in a given area, these other devices should be able to do the same thing. They should be easily upgradable, so, when new services arrived, we can add them, in order to end this war between different companies.

The content providers would love this, of course. My guess is that some companies include specific channels, such as Netflix, because they know these channels are popular, but others content providers have to pay to be present on a set-top box or other device. Apple is, of course, one of the culprits, because they refuse to allow any non-Apple devices to display any of their content, whether it’s a video or e-books. (I only buy Kindle e-books because I can read them on just about any device with a screen.) One of the main reasons Apple pushed to drop DRM on music was because of anti-competition investigations in Europe, alleging that this DRM prevented interoperability. It’s time to do the same thing for content channels.

It’s in the interest of consumers that this tangled web of channels and apps becomes less of a headache. It’s in the interest of content providers that anyone with a device capable of playing this type of channel be able to do so. And, finally, it really is in the interest of companies selling devices that they allow as many channels as possible to be present. After all, wouldn’t Apple sell more Apple TVs if you can also watch Amazon Instant? Wouldn’t Amazon sell more of their Fire TV if you can also watch movies from the iTunes Store? We consumers are the losers in this game; it would be nice if we didn’t have to worry about which channels are available on all these different devices so we could buy just one and use it to watch what we want.

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Amazon Introduces Amazon Fire TV

001.pngAmazon has introduced the Amazon Fire TV (Amazon.com), a tiny Apple TV-like box that you can use to stream Amazon Prime Video, and video from other services. Amazon describes the $99 box as follows:

Amazon Fire TV is a tiny box that connects your HDTV to a world of online entertainment. With a huge selection of TV episodes and movies, voice search that actually works, plus exclusive features like ASAP and Amazon FreeTime, it’s the easiest way to enjoy Netflix, Prime Instant Video, Hulu Plus, low-cost movie rentals, music, photos, games, and more.

Like the Apple TV, or Roku, the Amazon Fire TV has HDMI out, and handles 1080p video. Like the Apple TV, it also has an optical audio output. But the Fire TV also has a quad-core processor, and 2 GB of RAM, notably because it runs games.

The main reason to buy this device is to watch Amazon Prime Video on your TV.
You can certainly do this with AirPlay from a Mac or iPad, but it’s certainly a lot easier to have a dedicated device. However, at $99, many people will hesitate.

Personally, I’d like to get one. Amazon introduced Prime Instant Video here in the UK, and I have an Amazon Prime account. But I’m surprised that they haven’t launched the Fire TV in the UK at the same time. This is the only country, other than the US, where Amazon does video, so I’d have expected it available here now. I’ll just be patient and wait until they bring it to this side of the pond.

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Amazon Instant Video Comes to the UK; Amazon Inflates the Numbers

Amazon Instant Video is (finally) now available in the UK, and is free with an Amazon Prime membership. Initially £49 a year, this has just increased to £79 a year. I got a Prime membership in January, so I benefit from “free” streaming, and if I renew next year, I’ll pay the new price.

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Amazon has been promoting this for the past week, saying that one can “Enjoy unlimited streaming of more than 15,000 movies and TV episodes.”

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But when you look at the full catalog, the numbers are very different. There are currently only 2,269 movies, and 938 TV series. Granted, they’re counting every TV episode in the 15,000, but that number makes you think there’s a lot more content than there really is.

Also, if you don’t have kids, then your available content dwindles. About one-third of the TV series are for children, and one-fourth of the movies.

It looks like there’s some interesting content, but there’s far less than Netflix, and there’s much less variety. (Granted, most of what’s on Netflix is crap…) There’s also much less HD content; only 258 HD items are listed.

As long as it’s free with my Amazon Prime subscription, I’ll check it out. But given the limited content, I’ll need to see a lot of new movies and TV series there to get me to renew my Prime subscription next year. I got the Prime subscription because I wanted quick delivery of purchases; I’m happy to pay the £49 a year, but I doubt I’d want to pay £79 for that service. If they can’t split the two, then I’m unlikely to want to continue.

Update: As I’ve been browsing through the selection, I did find one classic movie that’s a must see: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, with Paul Muni. This 1932 film shows how a man is wrongly convicted for a robbery and ends up in a chain gang. It was a very important film in its time, having exposed the way prisoners were treated. Also, it has one of the best last lines in the history of cinema.

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Amazon and Drones: Seriously?

I wonder if December 1st is the new April 1st. Amazon yesterday announced that the company would start using unmanned drones to deliver packages, and this as early as 2015. The company hopes this will become ubiquitous, saying, “One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today.”

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I don’t believe this. There are so many reasons why this can’t happen that it just seems like a stunt to grab attention.

To start with, think about safety. A drone – such as the one shown above – has spinning rotors, which can probably cause damage to people, or to power lines. They will certainly be able to navigate through trees and phone lines, but having such devices coming out of the sky would be a hazard to inattentive people. I’m sure Amazon doesn’t intend these to be flown by robots; they’ll most likely hire an army of drone pilots in some third-world country to control them. But when one fails – say, over a school or busy highway – the danger is obvious.

Another thing is that these drones can only operate in certain areas. They can’t work in urban environments, because there isn’t enough room for them to land. So they’ll be limited to areas where there are houses, not apartments or office buildings. People will need to be present to receive the packages; I don’t see how the drones can put them in mailboxes.

The idea of that many unmanned objects flying through the skies is ludicrous. With no flight control system to keep them out of each other’s way – because if this happened, you can be sure that Amazon wouldn’t be the only company using them – accidents would happen often.

Finally, in a country with so many guns as the US, does Amazon really think that these things wouldn’t be used for target practice like aerial piñatas?

No, Amazon’s not going to use drones. They’re getting lots of publicity as a forward-thinking company. Good timing too; this article in The Guardian was also published yesterday, and it highlights the harsh working conditions of the real Amazon drones: the ones who fulfill orders in the company’s huge warehouses.

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Kindle MatchBook Not So Useful

Amazon has finally unveiled Kindle Matchbook, a service where your previous dead-tree book purchases will entitle you to buy Kindle versions of the books for a pittance, or even get them for free.

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According to my order history on Amazon.com, I’ve been buying from the company since 1997. (I have a feeling it goes back a bit further than that; I may have used a different email address in 1995 and 1996.) Of the hundreds of books I bought from the company – several hundred, at least – not one single book is matched with Kindle MatchBook.

We were not able to find any Kindle MatchBook eligible titles based on your past print book purchases.

You can see a list of books available via Kindle MatchBook here, though the numbers don’t add up. With some 65,947 titles as of this writing, there are 12,966 in the Religion & Spirituality category alone. There are more than 33,000 in Literature & Fiction, and I’ve certainly bought a lot of novels from Amazon, but more than 10,000 of them seem to be romance novels.

I find it simply astounding that not one single book I bought from Amazon shows up in their matching service. I’m going to assume that it’s an error; my reading tastes are broad, and there should be dozens of matches. I’ll have to check back in a little while and see if anything turns up.

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Amazon Should Allow Multiple Accounts on Kindles

I’ve complained about Apple IDs, in a recent Macworld article, as these IDs control the DRM that regulates what content you can use on different devices. But Apple’s not the only company running a DRM ring that limits how you can access your content. Amazon does this as well, with the DRM on Kindle books.

With Apple, you can have content from two Apple accounts on a single device. For example, a husband and wife can each have Apple IDs, and download content with them, and put all of that content on the iPhones, iPods and iPads they each own. So Alice can buy an app, and Bob can also use it on his iPhone. Bob can buy a book, and Alice can read it in iBooks on her iPad. All this requires is each user logging in on the computer that syncs to these devices.

With Amazon, you simply can’t share Kindle content. Sure, Amazon has a way you can lend or borrow books, but it’s very limited; you can only lend or borrow certain books. You need to check each book to find out if you can lend it.

This is a ridiculous system. The nature of books is that we lend and borrow them; it’s how we discover new books, it’s how we share the books we love. If Alice buys a book she really likes, she may want Bob to read it, but, the way the Kindle DRM works, this isn’t possible. The only way to do so would be to de-register a Kindle device or app, then register under another account; this is complicated, and it erases any books that were on the device from the original account.

Amazon needs to allow multiple accounts to be accessed on a Kindle or a Kindle app. I understand the need for DRM, but I also find it unfair that I can’t buy a Kindle book, then lend it to my girlfriend so she can read it when I’m finished. It’s not complicated to allow this. Come on, Amazon, get back in touch with the way the world works. People share books; let them do this easily.

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Amazon Announces Kindle MatchBook; Users Can Buy Cheap Ebooks of Print Books They’ve Purchased

Amazon has announced Kindle Matchbook, a new program where Amazon will let users buy Kindle ebooks of print books they’ve bought from Amazon at discounted prices. Announced at prices ranging from free to $2.99, Kindle MatchBook, launching in October, is said to provide Kindle editions for “thousands of books.”

I wonder how this will work for me. I’ve bought far too many books from Amazon.com, but I live in the UK. (I used to live in France, and bought more English-language books from the US than the UK, because they were cheaper.) Will I be able to get Kindle editions of my books? I guess I’ll find out in October.

No matter what, I think it’s a great idea. I’m looking forward to seeing how this works out, and how many books offer this. As an aside, this is something that Amazon can do but that Apple can’t, since Apple only sells digital products. This is similar to Amazon’s AutoRip, where you can get MP3 versions of CDs you’ve purchased, but with AutoRip, you’re simply getting files that you could create yourself.

So when will Amazon offer the same thing for DVDs and Blu-Rays…?

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How Amazon Has Made Book Searches Less Useful

Time was, you could search for obscure books on Amazon and find them easily. Back in the day, before eBooks and print-on-demand (PoD) books, the number of search results was more limited, and it was easier to find what you’re looking for. In recent times, however, Amazon has ruined their book search results by trying to give too much.

This isn’t a problem if you’re looking for, say Stephen King. This search helps you find his latest novel pretty quickly.

But if you’re looking for more obscure books – especially books in the public domain – you are presented with a confusing list of hundreds, even thousands of books, and it’s very hard to sort them.

Look at this search for Ralph Waldo Emerson. The first book that displays is a PoD book. Next comes a link to a page about the author, followed by a Kindle edition of Nature. (Your search results may vary, and Amazon searches change regularly according to what is sold.)

Scrolling down, only a handful of print books – real print books, not PoD books at exorbitant prices display. Now, it’s easy to choose to only view, say, paperbacks, by clicking in the Format menu in the left sidebar. But you can only choose one format; you can’t choose to look at, say, paperbacks and hardcovers. In addition, you can’t filter out PoD books. No matter how you search, they will pollute your results. Of course, since Amazon owns CreateSpace – a PoD production company – it’s in their interest to tout these books.

For some subjects, languages can get in the way. Amazon.com sells books in many languages – though they seem to have more in the major Romance languages – and you’ll find them in your search results. You can, at least, choose a specific language for your search, again in the sidebar.

Add to this confusion the fact that Amazon applies reader reviews to any edition of a specific book. So, Emerson’s Essays: First Series, which shows at the top of the list in my search, includes reviews that are not necessarily written about the specific edition you are looking at.

Amazon is very efficient at selling multiple versions of public domain books, but they sell so many now that readers can be flustered when searching for them. Since the search results don’t take into account the actual worth of the books – editions from reputable publisher, for example – the dreck floats to the top of the list. It’s time for Amazon to improve searching, so users can filter out all of that, and find the books worth buying. And they need to stop favoring their own CreateSpace books, which is an anti-competitive practice.

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