16 September 2011

One Simple Way to Improve Roku, Apple TV and Over-the-Top in General

When I first got my Roku box I felt some of the giddy sense of possibility I remembered from my first use of the World Wide Web back in the 1990s. Here was an entirely open, easy to use platform that could bring any kind of content to my television. I thought that this box could have a real impact on the television business.
That's not to say that the Roku doesn't have drawbacks. The setup is not hard, nor is adding channels, but the process is a bit arcane. The video quality fluctuates, at least over my wifi and cable modem.

However, the biggest user experience clunkiness relative to a multichannel video subscription is that it is difficult to switch between programs both within the Roku environment (e.g., between Netlfix and MLB.TV) and between the Roku environment and cable.

Channel surfing is the way many people watch ad-supported television, particularly live television.

If I'm watching a baseball game from MLB.TV and it is in commercial, I'd like to catch a few minutes of one of the things in my Netflix queue. Last night it took me 10 button pushes to get there and another 8 button pushes to get back. (The problem would be worse if I had not moved MLB and Netflix to be right next to each other on the channel lineup -- tip: use the * button to do that).  The reason it took so many clicks was partially a function of how far down the list my baseball game and Netflix show were, but I can't control that.  Oh and each time a new app or program loads, that takes some refresh time.  In short, it isn't a very good experience.

For all its well-deserved user-friendliness, the not-open, but otherwise similar Apple TV, is no better in facilitating, er..., stream surfing.
A bookmarking system would seem like an easy way to solve this. Perhaps this functionality needs to sit in the operating system level -- I don't know, I'm not a software developer. I do know that consumers would find it valuable.

The second problem, switching between the Roku environment and cable (or DBS or over-the-air) is a thornier one. If the geniuses who developed Google TV used an IR blaster as the way to solve the problem, that's not a good sign. IR blasters are notoriously finicky (Nilay Patel: "It's really simple: any product that requires IR blaster control of a cable box is doomed to fail.") We are awaiting a better solution.

In the event that cable and broadcast programming is available over-the-top (e.g., Bamboom, ivi or maybe even via TV Everywhere), maybe the second problem doesn't have to be solved, but the first one deserves some immediate attention.

From a different perspective, a cable set-top box that brings in over-the-top apps would seem to have an enormous head start at solving both problems and creating the best user experience.

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