Commentary by Steve Effros
I have long had a love-hate relationship with remote controls. As I have noted many times over the years in this column, I think that ease of navigation is critical to the service we offer. It has now become obvious that one of the primary focuses of the heated competition among video deliverers, be they “MVPDs” or “OTTs” (not sure there is much difference there, but that’s a column for another time) is how folks find the programming they want to watch.
One of the early winners of the navigation wars was Netflix. No, not with OTT, but before that, with DVDs. If you will remember it was Netflix back then that created one of the first really good websites so that you could scan movie titles and get recommendations for which movies you might like based on ones you had already picked. Pandora did that for music. The key to both was that it made it easier for folks to find something they wanted to see or hear. That was the real breakthrough on navigation.
The fundamental problem with navigation is that there’s so much to choose from these days. Again, another column coming on this point, but it seems obvious that this problem leads directly to the value of brand names. Eventually you have to rely on someone to curate what you want to watch, or what is of value to watch. The competition we are now seeing all around us is focused not only on who has what programming… HBO has this hit, Netflix has that hit, a broadcast network breaks through with a “winner,” etc., but whether it is available to you, where, and when. A grid program guide simply doesn’t do it any more.
But the television screen is not the greatest place to be manipulating that “availability” and “recommendation” data either. We are truly at the point we have all been talking about for a very long time; the “convergence” of the television set and the computer. That convergence is taking place. Look, for instance, at the new Apple TV box. But that box also displays the obvious weaknesses of the current iterations of the technology. The “search” function on the Apple TV, with a very clunky one-letter-at-a-time process of spelling out what you are looking for is not going to make for happy users either.
One solution, I think, is the Tablote. A combination of a computer tablet and a remote. This, of course, is not a new idea. Google’s Chromecast relies totally on such a device, whether it’s an actual computer tablet or a smartphone. While I hate to say it, I think this is the way we will all be manipulating and choosing the video we watch in the future. I prefer a tablet to the phone because the screen is bigger. I can actually see the text of the video being described and it’s easier to type in (or speak) what you are looking for, or hit the little icon on the screen.
Sure, there’s been criticism for years about not having better navigation and remotes, but think about it; if previously video providers had to supply an advanced, screen/voice remote to all customers, what do you think the price for that would have been? Google figured that one out: let them buy their own “Tablote,” or use their smartphone. It improves customer satisfaction while diverting costs. A win-win.
By the way, Amazon is now selling a $50 tablet that I’m testing. Seems to work with “apps” just fine.