Intel to Unveil Chips for Improving Video Quality on the Web

From the NYT:  Intel plans to announce a family of microprocessor chips on Monday that it says will speed the availability of high-definition video via the Internet.

As consumers clamor for more Internet video, a huge computing burden is placed on companies like Google, Microsoft and providers of digital video, who must compress the video files so they can be streamed to desktop and portable computers.

Intel’s new family, made up of 16 processors, would first be used in servers and high-end desktops that compress the video. They are the first chips based on a new manufacturing process that Intel says will give it a significant competitive advantage by increasing computing performance while reducing power consumption.

To get better video compression, Intel has added a set of 46 instructions it calls SSE4 to the new microprocessors.

The leading designer of the new processor, Steve Fischer, said the new instructions would make possible a new generation of servers that enhance the compression of digital video. “Video is becoming ubiquitous on the Web,” he said.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said Richard Doherty, president of Envisioneering, “and it’s probably the best use for this 45-nanometer technology over the next couple of years.”

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I Want My iTV

Cliff Sullivan from BusinessWeek writes,

But I won’t be getting it soon. While the technology is mostly in place, the players—from cable companies to film studios—can’t agree on how to make it happen.

I want to listen to music, have a box pop up on my screen telling me who’s phoning my home, or watch a vacation-themed slide show before forwarding it on to bore my friends on Facebook—all while sitting in front of the set in my living room. No one has yet put this wish list together in one nice, easy-to-use package.

They sure haven’t. As the author correctly points out, the reason is not the technology, but protection of existing business models. No one is addressing the gap between online content and the television.

While new technologies like IPTV bring digital content over IP to a STB connected to a TV, they do nothing to bridge the gap between online media and the TV.

So read the article at the BusinessWeek site and weigh in. What do you think? Is anyone addressing this gap? Do you want to watch online media on your TV? What features would you like to see in an iTV offering?

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Imagine PS3 as a digital media center

As Brier Dudley from the Seattle Times points out in his latest article,

A lot of people who bought fancy TVs over the past year or two have been looking for ways to get more digital content on their screens. They’ve been waiting for high-def player prices to fall, and for a resolution to the format war between the Sony-backed Blu-ray and the Microsoft-backed HD-DVD.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. My repsonse: You bet they do, but not just from Blu-ray or HD-DVD discs, more and more they want to get content online. Blu-ray is great and I enjoy watching HD movies on my PS3. But more and more, I would really like to be able to access online content.

Dudley continues,

That’s where Sony is releasing an add-on TV tuner that turns the PS3 into a TiVo-like video recorder. It’s also where Sony is talking up plans for an online video and music store, similar to the ones operated here by Microsoft and Amazon.

Cool, I can watch and record TV and even download videos and music directly from Sony. Sounds great, doesn’t it? What about my iTunes library, YouTube, Flickr and all the other content available online? Will I be able listen/view that content? What about online content like Hulu? Will Sony make all that available and stream it to my PS3? Well, it’s too early to say for sure, to my knowledge Sony hasn’t been specific about online content for its PS3 platform, but based on the past behavior let’s say–I doubt it.

Dudley asks the pivotal question,

Will we keep using PCs to download and store this stuff, or will some computerish consumer-electronics gadget emerge as the new home-entertainment hub?

With game consoles in over 40% of US households and with most of the consoles in broadband connected households, the PS3, XBox 360 and Nintendo Wii, could play a pivotal roles as an entertainment hubs. The problem is each of these companies has a vested interest in building an ecosystem around their platform and only their platform. Call it an “insular ecosystem”. So when Sony builds their online content service, it will serve PS3s and only PS3s. Microsoft will counter with an expanded 360 content platform serving only 360s. And lest one forget, the PS3 (and the 360) as game platforms first and foremost. While both Sony and Microsoft have become more comfortable with the “give away the razor, sell the blades” economics of game consoles (I am sure they would both vehemently state their hardware businesses are profitable–sure they are, because they can dump much of the costs into another category on the P&L), content and services will be rolled almost exclusively as a platform differentiator. In other words, they will view online content and services as a marketing expense to sell more hardware to sell more games.

As long as Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo create insular ecosystems, the game console as a digital hub will never take off.

For now, it is great to see the online connectivity options enhanced on the PS3. I am certain there will be more to this story.

Class Action Suit Hopes To Sue “A La Carte Cable” Into Existence

A new class action lawsuit accuses the cable and satellite industries of acting illegally by only selling channels in bundles in order to milk customers. If Congress won’t do it, this lawsuit might.

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Sizing up the IPTV Experience

Sean Buckley of Telecommunications magazine writes that one quote from the IPTV World Forum in London really stood out for him. That quote, from Accenture’s Arjang Zadeh, stated “quality, not content, is king.” Well, yes and no. It is not that simple, let me explain.

Why would such a quote stand out in Mr. Buckley’s mind? Well, as he goes on to explain, it hits home for him because of problems he encounters with his current provider, Comcast. Fortunately, one of the problems Mr. Buckley describes with Comcast, the transient but eerily predictable, “timeout” error when trying to access the On Demand service, can most likely be explained as an artifact of delivering a two-way service over a network originally designed to support one-way video. Press, On Demand again, and everything works fine. Strange.

IPTV is not immune from “strange” quirks either. In fact ANY digital service is subject to these “quirks”. You see with an analog TV signal (really any analog signal, but we are talking IPTV here) there is a graceful degradation of quality–without entirely interrupting the video program. Remember snow? Depending on the strength of the analog signal you have a really great picture or you have a less than great picture but you have one. In a digital system, digital cable, satellite or IPTV, the degradation is less graceful. Depending on what bits are lost, the picture may still look great, there may be “macroblocking” or the picture may drop entirely. Any of these digital artifacts may occur to cable, satellite or IPTV. Our experience in the field showed us that subscribers that came directly to IPTV from an analog service (Off Air, analog cable) were more sensitive by the digital artifacts. Those that had previous “digital experience” were less sensitive to the artifacts. Makes sense, now.

Without describing in full detail all the of mechanisms available in an IPTV system to ensure Quality of Experience (QoE), suffice it to say, there are several just at the network level which ensure the reliable delivery of packets to the IPTV STB. Of course, IPTV benefits from its inherit support of two-way traffic (unlike the CATV network to which two-way capability has been added).

Furthermore, QoE depends not only on the effectiveness of the network (core, transport, access), but the experience provided by the software platform. Just ask any subscriber of early stage IPTV deployments. Our early customers and their subscribers suffered through painful stages of learning–ours and the service providers–as the industry learned to deliver video over the telecom network reliably. These are the pains I have recently written about for the AT&T Uverse deployment.

However, content is an integral part of QoE and cannot be excluded from analysis. What we (my employer, Siemens Communications) have learned from our leading IPTV customer Belgacom, is that content remains king. This is where I believe I part ways with Messrs Buckley and Zadeh. What Belgacom learned is if licensing premium content was king, licensing exclusive content is like being galactic emperor. Through their licensing of Belgian Premiere soccer, they attracted and more importantly retain subscribers. As you might expect from any relatively new technology, there have been QoE issues at Belgacom. However, understanding that great content is part of the overall QoE has been critical to the rapid success of BelgacomTV. A lesson for all IPTV service providers.

I will have more on Mr. Zadeh’s presentation in a future post.

RIAA slams FAIR USE Act

Although the FAIR USE Act introduced yesterday will have little more than a symbolic effect on the DMCA, that isn’t stopping the Recording Industry Association of America from unloading on the bill with both barrels. “The DMCA has enabled consumers to enjoy creative works through popular new technologies,” the RIAA said in a statement.” LOL!

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