Thursday, January 14, 2010, 6:52 AM ET|Posted by Will Richmond
Amid all of the attention Netflix has been receiving for embedding its streaming software in one consumer electronics device after another (the Wii just yesterday) and its recent Warner Bros. deal, it's been easy to overlook the fact that Blockbuster has been getting some online traction itself. One announcement at CES last week, by ActiveVideo Networks, caught my attention as it has the potential to leapfrog Blockbuster On Demand's user experience past Netflix's Watch Instantly.
Much as I'm a big fan of Netflix's Watch Instantly streaming feature, one of its limitations is that the user experience is very segregated between computer and TV. You browse and search online for titles - just as you would for DVDs - and then when you've made your choices, they show up in your Instant Queue online and on your connected TV (via Roku, Blu-ray, Xbox or other device). While it's a perfectly functional approach, wouldn't it be nice if you could do the entire process of search, discovery, previewing, selection and viewing on the TV itself?
The requirements are that ActiveVideo's thin client has been integrated with the device, and that Blockbuster has its own deal with to distribute through the specific device manufacturer. Navigation is via the remote control using an on-screen keypad (see example screen shots below from last week's CES demos).To date, Blockbuster has announced CE device deals with Samsung, 2Wire, and through its deal with Sonic Solutions, the ecosystem of devices already working with Roxio CinemaNow, such as TiVo. For now, that's small in comparison to Netflix's constellation of device partners, but it's still early in the convergence game. Outside of CE devices - and in a case of somewhat strange bedfellows - Blockbuster is also focused on cable operators. It recently announced partnership deals with top 10 cable operators Suddenlink and Mediacom to enhance their VOD offerings.
Similarly, ActiveVideo is also focused both on CE (currently through a partnership with middleware provider Videon Central) and on cable. It has deployed on set-top boxes with Cablevision and Oceanic Time Warner Cable in Hawaii, reaching an audience of 5 million homes. Content providers that have developed apps include Showtime, HSN and Fox, among others. No doubt ActiveVideo and Blockbuster will synch up their biz dev activities to proliferate the Blockbuster on Demand app as widely as possible.
I have to admit that I haven't been paying too much attention to Blockbuster, as it has worked to re-position itself, aiming to close another 1,000 stores by the end of the year and installing more kiosks to compete with Redbox. Of course, it can ill afford to allow Netflix to get too far out in front of it in digital delivery as DVD rentals are poised to be supplanted by streaming down the road.
But Blockbuster has an ubiquitous, if somewhat dated, brand that could be skillfully leveraged into the digital era, provided it has the right services in its arsenal. In this respect, the potential to bring a converged user experience between online and connected TVs is a meaningful differentiator. No initial joint customers have yet been announced by Blockbuster and ActiveVideo, though I expect that soon. And, as online video and TV continue to converge, ActiveVideo is likely to find itself in the middle of a lot of action. All of this is worth keeping an eye on.
Update: Looks like I'm 1 step behind on Netflix's Xbox implementation. Apparently in Aug '09 it was updated to allow full browsing and search for the Watch Instantly catalog. I'm used to the Roku and Blu-ray experiences. Hat tip to Brian Fitzgerald for bringing to my attention.What do you think? Post a comment now.
(Note - ActiveVideo Networks is a VideoNuze sponsor)