Condensed News From CES: The Stuff That Matters

Last week I read through over 3,000 posts in my RSS feeds covering news from the CES show. I've sorted through all the noise, stripped out all the releases about WiFi washing machines (seriously), and condensed it down to bring you the most important topics pertaining directly to the streaming and online video industry. Since it's a long post, I've highlighted topics and company names to try and make it easier for you to find specific news.

On the streaming devices front, I didn't see many new devices that were all that interesting. What stood out for me and what I would consider to be the best new device announcement from the show is Vizio's $99 streaming box. When it launches later this year it will trump both Roku and Apple in functionally and will have the Google TV platform built in. (Here's why I think this device has the potential to do very well) Roku announced that their Roku LT and Roku 2 XS models are now available for pre-order in the UK and Ireland, due to ship at the end of this month. Forty channels will be available on the devices including Netflix and MLB.TV amongst others and Roku recently announced that to date, they have sold 2.5M boxes in North America.

In other device news, Western Digital announced that their WD TV Live player in the UK received a firmware update to support not only BBC iPlayer but also Netflix's new streaming service in that region. Microsoft announced that they have now sold 66M Xbox 360 consoles worldwide and have sold 18M Kinect motion-sensing systems in a little over a year since introducing the Kinect system to the market. While lots of $99 streaming boxes are available in the industry, so far, Microsoft and Sony still dominate the living room and combined, have sold more than 100M Xbox 360 and PS3 gaming consoles worldwide. As of now, that's still the device to beat for the battle of the connected living room.

Boxee didn't announce anything new at the show, but was showing off their Boxee Live TV dongle that will ship at the end of this month for $49. To use the dongle, users also have to have a Boxee Box by D-Link and when combined, users will be able to capture live over-the-air TV broadcasts and stream the video via the Boxee box. There is no DVR functionally included however, so while this product is great for anyone who wants to get over-the-air live broadcasts, like sports, it's not a replacement for any kind of DVR-like functionality. One new device that supports the recording of video from over-the-air and was shown for the first time at CES is called the Simple.TV box. The box pulls in over-the-air channels and encodes them in MPEG-4 streams for playback to other devices. The box itself contains no storage but you can attach your own for DVR purposes but you might have to pay a monthly fee to really get the most out of the box.

Connected TV platforms were a big theme at CES this year and while broadband enabled TVs and Blu-ray players are the future mass-market devices of this industry, that adoption is still many, many years away. Multiple vendors announced new offerings slated to hit the market later this year, but we'll have to see if they actually come out. Verizon announced a partnership with LG that will bring 26 live channels to LG's smart TVs and Blu-ray players but you have to be a subscriber to Verizon's FiOS TV service to use it. Samsung announced a similar deal with DirecTV to allow some of their 2012 lineup of smart TVs to access live broadcast and stored content without the need for a set-top-box.

I guess it's nice if you want to mount a TV on the wall and don't want to deal with a set-top-box, but how well will these services actually work? Will consumers be charged more for this functionality since the MSO stands to lose revenue from the rental of their set-top-boxes? And how many TV models from Samsung and LG will actually support this? Will they be affordable or only the big screen TVs that cost more than $2k? It's really too early to know how successful this can be but it's no real game changer.

In other connected TV platform news, Panasonic announced new social TV features for their Vierra Connect TV platform with new apps from Skype, Disney, Facebook and others. The BBC launched new apps for connected TVs from Sony and is talking about launching an HTML5 version of their app for Virgin Media's TiVo boxes. Yahoo! announced more connected widgets and now has 8M TVs in the market that support their platform and 1M active users each month. Sharp announced it has launched their own connected platform, dubbed SmartCentral, due to launch later this year on most of their TV sets and also has a free media-sharing app that allows users to send photos, music and video via wireless to a Sharp Aquos Wi-Fi enabled set from their IOS or Android smart phone or tablet.

Probably the most interesting TV news in general was the announcement by Samsung that its top of the line TV model will have dual CPUs for running apps and will feature something called "Smart Evolution". A feature that will let users to swap out the dual core processor for something more powerful down the road if they want to upgrade. That's interesting as I don't believe I've heard of another TV manufacturer doing that, but it also concerns me that it may be a sign that TVs will need more processing power to deliver a truly good connected experience.

On the content side of the house, lots of news came out, but most of it was of little significance. The most interesting news was that Microsoft was working on building a subscription based service for their Xbox LIVE platform, but cancelled their plans due to licensing costs from the content owners being too expensive. However, Microsoft did announce some content deals at the show, saying that Comcast's Xfinity TV service will soon be coming to the Xbox 360. In addition, a new partnership with News Corp will bring Fox News, Wall Street Journal, Fox and IGN to the Xbox LIVE platform.

Showtime announced that Verizon FiOS customers now have access to via their iPad app giving customers access to 400 hours of on-demand content. Meanwhile, Comcast announced that customers will soon have access to AnyPlay, Comcast's offering that will allow customers to watch any channel in their subscription available for viewing, on the iPad inside your home. Sky announced a partnership with Zeebox and is creating a companion app for its scheduling and it includes social features and the ability to purchase merchandise.

The most important content news that came out of CES was that Warner Brothers is pushing the delay window for new DVDs rented by Netflix and Blockbuster from 28 days to 56 days. It's expected that this will also happen to Redbox when their deal with Warner Brothers is up for renewal at the end of this month. No surprise on this one as anyone who tracks the industry knows that once the studios created the 28 day windows, they sold more DVDs. So typical of the studios, they only care about money and have no interest in truly embracing digital. Consumers are saying they want and will pay for first run content in digital form, at a reasonable price, and the studios respond by saying "buy more DVDs". At some point, the studios will get burned, just like the music industry did.

DirecTV is raising rates and started notifying its nearly 20 million subscribers that it will be charging more for its programming services starting in February with most packages seeing an increase of $3 to $5 a month. TiVo rolled out their much anticipated software update for TiVo Premiere owners that includes the ability to do streaming from one Premiere box to another along with the TiVo guide finally being offered in HD. The company also released their TiVo Remote app in the Android Market. Dish Networks announced the addition of video on-demand streaming to its Remote Access iPad app and a new DVR called the Hopper that can record up to six shows at once.

There was a lot of tablet news from the show and the most revealing theme was that many tablets will be coming out this year in the $250 price range or less. NVIDIA and ASUS announced a $249 seven inch tablet with Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0), but no release date as of yet. Viewsonic announced the ViewPad e70, another seven inch tablet with Android 4.0 set to be released in March for $169 (video). And if you thought that was cheap, MIPS Technologies announced the Ainovo Novo 7 Paladin, a $79 tablet with Android 4.0 that is currently for sale in China. While no date was announced, the company said it expects to bring this tablet to the U.S. at a similar price point later this year. Additional new tablets were also announced at the show, but all of the others were in the $500-$700 price range.

Regarding tablet apps, one awesome piece of news is that Sling Media confirmed that they will release a SlingPlayer app for Amazon's Kindle Fire, due to hit the Amazon App store for $29 later this month. While not yet an actual app in the market, TiVo demoed DVR video streaming to their iPad companion app, which looks really cool and hopefully, will one day be released. Dijit launched their remote control app for the iPad with a TV guide and the ability to control Roku streaming boxes. And last week, Amazon launched a workaround to Apple’s in-app purchasing restrictions by launching a Web-based HTML5 Kindle store specifically optimized for the iPad.

Of course Google had a lot to talk about regarding their Google TV platform, announcing new partnerships with LG and Samsung and expanded deals with Sony and Vizio. They also announced new deals with chip providers Marvell and MediaTek, which are expected to give the Google TV platform support on a larger number of devices. That said, Google's partners didn't seem to be promoting their support for the Google TV platform much, instead deciding to focus most of their attention on their own connected platforms. While Google mentioned Samsung as a new partner on their website, Samsung didn't do any media outreach promoting Google at all.

Sony has decided to take Google's TV platform off of TVs for now and announced a new network media player that supports Google TV, due to come out this summer. Vizio and LG both announced new TV sets that will support Google TV later in the year, but LG only announced two models and Vizio three. Support will be on sets that are at least 47" in size and also have 3D functionality, so don't expect them to be cheap. If you're looking for new 24"-42" sets in the market that will support Google TV, it doesn't look like that's going to happen any time this year. That said, Sony is still selling their Sony Internet TV with Google TV and has recently slashes prices on all sizes, from 24"-46". I have a few of these sets at home and really like them.

On the UltraViolet front, the big news was that Amazon revealed that rights for electronic sell through have been secured from one of the big studios, with CNET identifying the studio being Warner Brothers. Samsung also announced disc support for UltraViolet but the entire platform has a lot of problems, namely the fact that Apple, Disney and Netflix won't join, not to mention, lots of technical issues in making the service work correctly. The movie industry is betting big on UltraViolet and it won't be the first time things don't work out like they expected. Remember Movielink?

For all the news that came out, I didn't see anything that was really unexpected, aside from the Vizio streaming box. More TVs and Blu-ray players with the Google TV platform baked in, which we knew was coming, and lots of new models of TV sets, all pushing connected platforms. It's good to see more devices getting smarter, but sales of TVs have not picked up in the market and worldwide, is only expected to grow 2% this year. So it will take a lot more than connected TVs and apps to really get the market growing any time soon. Some of the tablets announced at the show look interesting, especially at those low price points, but lets see how many of them actually get released into the market.

Keep in mind that a large percentage of devices announced at CES each year never actually come out. Many get cancelled or delayed and in almost every case, vendors don't announce any specific dates of when their products will come out or what they will cost, especially in the case of connected TVs. So the jury is still out on what impact all of these news announcements from CES will really have on the market.