Wednesday, June 29, 2011, 9:00 AM ET|Posted by Will RichmondEver find yourself in a situation where you want to watch online video, but you can't actually get online or can only get a sub-par connection? In these cases, it would have been convenient to pre-record the videos you want and watch them at your convenience, as is the norm with DVRs. This is the simple, but highly compelling use case that PlayLater, a new product being released in closed beta today, addresses.
With PlayLater, you first download the client software (PC-only for now) and are then presented with an interface where you can search and select your desired programs from a variety of the most-popular free and paid online video sources (e.g. Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc.). I gave PlayLater a try and was able to easily find and record the latest episode of "Glee" on Hulu. Because PlayLater is recording, not downloading, the program, it requires as much time as the duration of the program and episode - just like using a DVR with TV, and of course the PC must be on while recording.
Jeff Lawrence, President and CEO of MediaMall Technologies, which makes PlayLater (as well as PlayOn and service that provides streaming from PCs to connected devices), told me in an interview that he believes PlayLater is the first mainstream DVR for online video. The service costs $4.99/month or $49.99/year.
I've long wondered why a convenient DVR for online video didn't exist and figured it was just a matter of time until it was introduced as a feature by the major sites. But a service that spans all sites offers an extra layer of convenience similar to DVRs for TV. It's not clear how content providers will welcome DVR capability for online video though. They are likely to be concerned about file-sharing, loss of control/measurement and disabling of key engagement attributes in advertisements. For example, Hulu's Ad Selector, which allows users to choose which ads they want to watch, would be disabled, with the default ad playing. Nonetheless, Jeff believes that PlayLater is protected under the same standards of consumer fair use as DVRs are, and he is prepared to defend PlayLater's legitimacy.
In addition, there are a few other product-related issues take a little bit of the shine off PlayLater for now. As mentioned above, it's PC-only, as is PlayOn, so Mac users are out of luck. A key limitation is that you can only record programs that are already available, so there's no concept of "set and forget" to record all upcoming episodes in a series. Jeff said this is the most important missing feature and is next up on the roadmap. Lastly, for now while you can stream video to the iPad by using PlayLater in conjunction with PlayOn, it's not possible to transfer files which would enable out of home mobile use with the iPad.
Add it all up and those that will get the most value out of PlayLater at this point are PC laptop owners - certainly a good amount of people, but far from everyone. Still, PlayLater is a positive step in further enhancing the convenience of online video for offline viewing.