Streaming Media East: Verizon and boxee Want In To Your Living Room

Day 2 of Streaming Media East opened with two keynotes, one from a representative of an established telecom and another from the founder of a software startup.

The opening keynoter was Joe Ambeault, director, product development and management, video services for Verizon. He addressed the way Verizon handles a rapid development cycle, quipping "Yes, we're a telco and we do five 9's [99.999% uptime] but we also have an incubator approach for new technologies. Then we go to prototyping, and you'll notice I didn't say anything about positioning and business plans. We then move to 'do no harm' testing'."

As an example of a success in this model, Ambeault pointed to FiOS, Verizon's very high speed fiber broadband connectivity.

"Look at what we did with FiOS," he said. "FiOS brings high-end broadband, but is also allows every device in the house to connect to each other, and out to the Internet."

Ambeault went on to discuss an upcoming service, an enhancement to FiOS TV that he says will allow access to over 7 million pieces of content. To do so, Verizon understood the need to create an interactive media guide that would allow access to all this content, which in turn should drive an uptake in digital video recorders (DVR) and increase the amount of consumption of FiOS TV in the living room.

When asked by an audience member why Verizon would build this type of interactive media guide from scratch instead of licensing TiVo or another service, Ambeault provided a technical response.

"FiOS, as a fiber optic service, has a latency of about 40 milliseconds," he said, "so our customers are used to very fast response times, when compared to copper delivery of content, which has a latency of around 400 milliseconds. So buying or licensing off-the-shelf technologies would sub-optimze our network."

At its core, the upcoming interactive media guide will be driven by a search engine, which Ambeault calls "core navigation through a plethora of content: multimedia, music and other types of content, with a robust search engine that's much closer to an internet search tool than previous interactive TV solutions."

The content found through the guide would play back in a variety of players, including ones that mimic traditional TV, RSS feeds, and even web video players.

"These media players also have access to plug ins and applications, such as a DVD emulator," said Ambeault, "which makes on-demand content more like a DVD experience including rich menus and other DVD-like navigation."

Ambeault also talked to the benefit of external APIs, one of which is a desktop application which can be used to pre-populate content to the TV for a customized experience.

"Rather than having to cue up content on the TV with a remote control," said Ambeault, "which only has a few navigation buttons, we've used a model that allows a customer to set up content ahead of time, from work or other location, using a desktop application. So when it comes time to watch the content, the customer just sits down and watches the content."

Ambeault spent some time walking through the "big rules" for the incubation, and then showed the results of recent testing that was done on the interactive media guide.

"We are continuing our beta testing during the early commercialization stages," said Ambeault, "which will add podcasts (video and other downloadable media) at early tester request, and we think that newer set-top boxes may mitigate need for PC bridging. We also think there is a potential for advertising, which was not part of the original model, and we are looking into adding Facebook and Twitter widgets, allowing social networks to power discovery of content that in turn will be viewed on FiOS TV."

The second keynote, by Avner Ronen, CEO and founder of boxee, pushed the social media discovery model forward.

"We see ourselves as the Firefox for media," said Ronen. "We are software only, but our intent is to grow from software-only in to devices. While there are other companies like Roku adding boxes to the living room, we think there is an opportunity to engage with other boxes in the living room, such as gaming consoles."

Ronen, when asked by an audience member, what boxee is exactly, said that the software platform "enables aggregators and content owners to put content on the platform and then have viewers share the content amongst themselves, with tracking as to where it has been used."

In essence, boxee is a cross-platform freeware media center software with social networking features. While it is software only, and is in beta, it can be loaded on AppleTV or Linux devices. The software allows the use of content from the web on a television, dubbed the "10-foot user interface design for the living-room TV."

Ronen also addressed some of the controversy around a dispute with Hulu earlier this year.

"The existing, established models run counter to the boxee model," said Ronen, "where sharing and recommendations from others in your social networks enables additional viewers. We don't charge to have content on the boxee platform—and don't yet have a revenue model—but we think we can also help increase views on boxee by providing placement expertise. We want to maintain the status as an open-source platform that works across many devices, unlike proprietary code for proprietary set top boxes."

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