Monday, December 29, 2008

The Looming Apocalypse

The motion picture and television industries have -- so far -- avoided the devastation that piracy has wrought on the music industry. The reasons are largely technical. First, song files are much smaller than movie or TV files, and thus can be downloaded much quicker. Many people are willing to wait a minute or two for a song, but not hours, or even days, for a movie. The time for downloading TV shows and movies will decrease as broadband speeds increase, but the fact remains that, for now, downloading audio-visual content is a lengthy process.

Second, unlike with music, the user experience for enjoying pirated TV shows and movies is considerably worse than with the legal version. A song downloaded illegally using Limewire can be enjoyed just as easily on one's iPod as the legal 99-cent version bought on iTunes (and some prefer the Limewire version, given the absence of Apple FairPlay DRM). With movies and TV shows, however, the experience of watching legal content (say, from a DVD) is vastly better than that obtained by downloading illegally. Buy a DVD, and you can watch it without hassle on your 46-inch LCD from the comfort of your couch. Download last week's Hollywood release from BitTorrent, and -- unless you're pretty damn tech-savvy -- you're probably going to have to watch it while sitting at your desk staring at a computer screen, or maybe on your laptop. Tolerable for a 22-minute TV episode; really unpleasant for a 2-hour movie.

The TV and film industry's piracy problem is going to increase by orders of magnitude once it's fairly easy to watch on a normal TV content downloaded onto a computer. That day isn't quite here, and now comes news that it's a little farther away than we thought. Comes news from Wired that a device called Myka, apparently designed to make it as easy as possible to watch on your TV content illegally downloaded using BitTorrent, is -- for the moment -- still "vaporware":
A set-top box with a built-in BitTorrent client, the Myka had the Pirate Bay crowd salivating when it was first announced in March. And rightly so when you consider a tiny box with HDMI connections, H.264 and Blu-ray support, embedded Linux, a 160GB hard drive and the ability to suck all of Hollywood's top hits directly from the file-sharing networks, no purchase required.

But the pirate's dream appliance remains a pipe dream, and it looks likely to stay that way. As reader Chris Lindley points out, Myka's website is still taking pre-orders, even though the user forums are overrun with spam and requests for refunds.

The Wired story goes on to point out that there are other ways to get illegally downloaded content from computer to TV, but those strike me as far from user-friendly for the average non-techie.

Once it truly does become as easy to watch an illegally downloaded movie on your TV as it is to listen to an illegally downloaded song on your iPod -- and I suspect that's going to happen within the next 2-4 years -- piracy risks becoming a reasonable substitute for legitimate DVD purchases by mainstream consumers, threatening one of the industry's (stagnant or declining) profit centers. The fight against piracy isn't going to get any easier.


  1. Actually there already are a number of very easy ways to watch downloaded and/or illegally copied movies and tv shows on any size television that require the barest minimum of tech savvy. You can easily plug in a laptop or have a dedicated home theatre PC (often an old otherwise obsolete desktop) using s-video (incredibly common on most TVs) or a hdmi port. Plugging it in adds it as a "second screen" to your computer and you can easily watch any downloaded or copied content. And as of today, I think there are plenty of people who no longer download content but instead merely make a copy of dvds they've rented using netflix or blockbuster, copies which can easily be shared using USB keys or the rapidly expanding external backup Hard drives.....

  2. That's doable, but you still have to have the computer pretty close to the TV (or have a long wire running all over the place).

    Is there currently any way to get video wirelessly from a computer to a TV?

  3. well, it all depends on what you want to spend. Most people have a tray under their TVS where the DVD player (and VCR for many) sit. An old desktop (call it a 100$, you can often get one for far less from ebay etc) that you might otherwise throw out, on its side, is about the same size as a VCR would be, and often has a dvd player built in. A "headless laptop(a laptop with a broken and/or removed screen) can be even slimmer than the slimmest standalone dvd player and would have also generally have dvd playing functionality. So, if you start from the point of view that there are plenty of underused computers out there, with the only additional cost of a 6$ svideo cable, which can easily be "pretty close" to a TV in the way a VCR or DVD player, then all you need to assume is that the person has a wireless router (pretty much everwhere nowadays, even for non-techies), and they can very easily stream content wirelessly around their house. Essentially that old computer now in "permanent dvd player/video content streaming" mode can just stay at the TV. If you're willing to follow a step further, you can assume they have a 500gb or 1TB hard drive (65$-100$ nowadays) in this old desktop or laptop, meaning a virtual library of movies or tv shows fully attached to their TV already, with no fumbling with DVD boxes even. Thats not even including installing a tv-tuner (20$-70$) which would let this computer act as a DVR/Tivo style device as well.
    I think you'd be surprised how many people have one of these already, and with todays technology and realistically no additional cost and minimal "tech skills", it could be everywhere. Realistically, anyone can do it, but most people over 30 wouldn't think that they could do it (unaware of s-video plugs, etc), and its in no company's best interest to let them know how simple it is. typically writes walk-throughs that are very accessible to non-techies on how to do this sort of thing with a wink and a nudge about where the content is coming from, and this particular article describes how even if you don't have an extra computer lying around the house, that you could build one of these for under 200$.

  4. There are also things like which lets you repurpose an XBOX to be just this sort of wirelessly streaming "media" hub. If you consider how many americans have xboxes hooked up to their TVs.....You're right, that the fight against piracy in terms of movies/tv shows is the next battlefield, but its not 2-4 years out, its already here. On even just a 500 gigabyte hard drive you could expect to get at least 600 movies (or thousands of episodes of half-hour TV) at a quality much better than VHS and nearly indistinguishable from DVD for most people for most content.

  5. thats wiki's take on this, they seem to be mostly referring to higher-end, pre-packaged devices, but really all you need is any old computer and an s-video cable....


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