The Issue: An Apple TV upgrade now enables access to YouTube video at the TV.
Background: YouTube PC-web user-awareness makes it ideal for a TV platform developer to promote sales of networked TV or Set-Top Box (STB).
Behind the scene: Alternative hardware developers, TV UI software developers and video sharing start-ups, are looking for TV technology which enables them to compete in the internet video market, and therefore with Apple TV. Active-TV technology, which can provide open access to competing solutions and contributes to the delivery of internet video to the living room TV in a cost-effective manner, is likely to be a worthy competitor to Apple TV.
I have been trying out the latest Apple TV support for YouTube video access at the TV. Looking at the latest Hitwise network traffic data (below), it is easy to see why Apple added support for YouTube. Hitwise reports: “As of May 2007, YouTube's market share was 50% greater than those 64 [other video] sites combined”. There are also reports of over 100M YouTube video viewings per day.
Apple TV’s access to YouTube video adds greatly to the amount of video available at the TV. YouTube’s popularity can clearly help drive adoption of the Apple TV device. Currently, the only other video accessible via Apple TV is from the http://www.apple.com/ portal or local video, in the appropriate format, from a home networked PC or Mac.
When iTunes is used on a PC, it can display multiple video formats, assuming the necessary codec plug-ins are added. However, Apple TV only displays videos in H.264 format; this includes videos stored on a networked PC and streamed to the Apple TV. Those individuals with large collections of DivX or Xvid-based videos will surely be disappointed. That said, there are reports of how additional codecs can be added to the Apple TV, without having to open the box. Alternatively, video can be transcoded to the H.264 codec using various third-party solutions.
When accessed from a PC, YouTube video has been provided in Adobe Flash Video (FLV) format. Now, likely to support Apple TV, Google is rebuilding the YouTube catalog in H.264 format. Reports indicate "thousands of videos designed for Apple TV will be available at launch, but that the remainder will become available by the fall”.
I have not found any information about expansion of the API which gives access to the YouTube catalog. Rebuilding the YouTube catalogue and maintaining both H.264 and FLV versions is surely a major effort. Maybe Apple gains a slight quality advantage from H.264 over FLV, at the cost of a higher bit-rate. It is also likely the encoding resolutions are specifically optimized for Apple TV and iPhone usage. If YouTube provide new API information for accessing their video catalogue in H.264 or FLV formats, other users such as active-TV enabled platforms will be able to select the must appropriate video format. Networked TVs utilizing active-TV technology are able to support the H.264 format.
Last year there was an announced partnership between Google Video and DivX for use of the popular DivX video codec. But it remains unclear where this partnership is leading with respect to the streaming of video to interesting and capable living room appliances. The http://stage6.divx.com/ video-sharing website has emerged as a potential competitor to YouTube – serving-up video in the DivX codec format.
The emergence of Apple TV and active-TV platforms which are not dependant on Microsoft’s Windows Media Video (WMV) format (although active-TV technology has shown optional support for WMV), does raise the question whether or not YouTube will feel the need to maintain yet another copy of its video catalog in WMV format. For now, however, given the lack of Extender-based TVs, or the like from Microsoft collaborators, or even any market significance behind Microsoft’s next generation Extender technology (Pika), there seems little urgency.
Returning to Apple TV, and what the user experience is like, with an upgrade in firmware, a YouTube entry now appears in the top-level menu. After making this selection, the YouTube menu page (shown below) appears. Note I had previously entered my YouTube user-id and password. A blue box is shown around the current selection; this box is moved around the screen using arrows on the small and stylish Apple TV remote.
I had no difficulty using the Apple TV UI. It works well. Selecting the Top Rated menu entry produced the TV layout shown below. A similar layout is used for many of the YouTube support menus. Of course, the video can be made ‘full screen’. Even with the new H.264 formatting, the YouTube video is not high-quality, but I don’t think that will deter YouTube enthusiasts.
Video search at the TV is supported, as shown below. It is easy to enter text strings and the YouTube search engine responded quickly. A new video can be added to a user’s list of favorites. Disappointingly, however, many of my favorites accessible on the PC (in .FLV format) did not appear in the Apple TV YouTube favorite listings, as they have not yet been re-encoded into H.264 video format.
One thing I did miss was support for favorite playlists. On a PC, iTunes supports playlists and YouTube PC-web supports playlists. In contrast, YouTube video favorites organized under playlists, lose their playlist grouping, when accessed from Apple TV. This feature has been discussed in terms of using an Apple TV as a point of sale display controller. In this case, JPEG slide-shows, video clips or YouTube video could be arranged into a playlist sequence.
My interest in organized playlists is to reduce the amount of TV interactivity. The Apple TV UI still feels like a bit like a PC-web interface – that is, something one person is involved with. I think a group of people viewing the TV are not likely interesting in watching another person continually engaged in driving TV operations. One way to overcome this limitation would be to first create a playlist while accessing YouTube via PC-web on a laptop computer, and then sitting back and watching the playlist via the TV. This would allow YouTube video to be formatted in the more familiar TV experience as a channel for YouTube video or as an assembled playlist.
In summary, Apple’s first effort at adding YouTube access to Apple TV is quite good. No doubt they will continue to offer significant improvements. However, there are other software developers which will soon offer alternatively formatted YouTube UIs for the TV. Underlying this are TVs and Set-Top Boxes (STB) supporting active-TV technology, which provide the necessary platforms and means to demonstrate and profit from the inventiveness of new UI software – should they be able to understand what the TV user really wants. Currently, only the Apple TV UI is available for the Apple TV platform.
Regarding video, YouTube competitors also have ambitions of delivering internet video to the living room TV. They can improve their market share by offering a TV-web formatted UI which is more appealing than Apple TV’s YouTube UI.
In the realm of hardware, there are also networked TV and STB manufacturers who do not incorporate embedded Apple TV hardware, but must offer a TV UI for user access to video sharing sites. TV-web channels made accessible by a TV’s support for active-TV technology, provide TV manufacturers with the necessary mechanism to compete with Apple TV’s support for video access.
Given developers are working on TV-web formatted access to YouTube and other video sharing and distribution sites, there is going to be competition and continual development to reach the best TV UI. This new convergence market could be significantly driven by a breakthrough in either hardware or TV UI technology, such as a $100 hybrid STB or low-cost networked-TV; or a TV UI which bridges the gap felt by a large audience of familiar TV users looking for easy and appropriate TV access to networked delivered video.
Steve Jobs is reported as saying “Our model for Apple TV is we want to be like a DVD player for the Internet”. This may have led to the Deutche Bank statement “[Apple TV] will eat up a good chunk of the US$26-billion DVD player market in the next several years” and “one of the primary drivers of this change will be the availability of YouTube content on Apple TV”. While demand may be strong, platform costs are not insignificant: I would doubt that Steve expects a big financial impact from his ‘Apple TV hobby’ in the near term, given the material cost of an Apple TV.
Nevertheless, looking to the long-term, Jobs also said “A lot of people failed to make [media centers] a business, such as Tivo and Microsoft. If we work on it and improve over the next 18 months or two years, we can crack that”. He may not be alone. Despite lackluster or failed attempts in the past, the exceptionally low cost structure of an ecosystem based on active-TV technology will make it hard to build a lower cost box than one based on active-TV technology. The appeal of YouTube and other internet video sites, with content viewable on the TV, is certain to drive overall demand.
Feedback, corrections and comments welcome. Contact me for more information or support with active-TV technology development.