Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The new black box in town

Netflix has finally announced its long-rumored set-top box [reviewed here]. The box, made by Roku, is $99 and the service is $9 a month (it's included with any Netflix subscription except the $5 entry-level special). There are a couple of catches:
  • Obviously, you'll need broadband. The service promises "near DVD-quality", that is, somewhere around a megabit. I don't know if they can send you HD if you've got the bandwidth for it but if you live in the States, you probably don't so the question is moot.
  • The selection is limited. In particular, the studios are still leery of putting out their latest releases on the internet, so you won't get those. In all, about 10,000 titles are available, compared to the 100,000 they offer by mail.
Hmm ... anyone remember when movie theaters had one (count it, one) screen and there were three TV networks plus the odd UHF station playing Our Gang, The Munsters and Laurel and Hardy re-runs? Now 10,000 titles is "limited". Progress, I suppose.

"Broadband" in the states won't support live HD, but if the box had enough storage on board you could get HD sort-of-on-demand. Ask for your selection when you leave for work and it'll be there when you get home, probably, assuming no one else wants to do much with the internet connection during the day. Faster than waiting for a DVD in the mail, but interestingly, not a lot faster.

I would be surprised, though, if the box had anywhere enough storage on board for a full HD movie. My guess is it's enough to buffer a few minutes in case of net.hiccups, and Wikipedia's entry on Roku (the manufacturer) seems to support this.

Even at near-DVD resolution and a "limited" selection, I'm expecting the things to sell like hotcakes. For about the price of a premium movie channel package you get orders of magnitude more selection with comparable picture quality (if the quality isn't at least comparable, the whole thing will be dead on arrival). If they do sell, the projected video flood of the internet comes one sizable step closer.

In the case of households with cable, a chunk of video traffic that now goes over the provider's system and then down the cable to the TV will shift to going over the backbone to the cable provider and thence to the TV. In other words, the net shift is from the provider's system onto the backbone. The obvious solution is to put Netflix's servers at the upstream end of the cable (but see this post for a slightly different take).

Whether this happens depends on how the cable companies feel about their newfound "co-opetition". If you're in the bandwidth business, you love Netflix's box. If you're in the content business, maybe not so much.

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