SiliconFilter

Google Hopes to Rekindle Interest in Google TV With New Interface, Apps & Old Hardware

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With Google TV, Google hoped to make a push into its users’ living rooms. Its launch in October 2010, though,  was marred by an overcomplicated interface and a lack of content, as the TV networks and companies like Hulu quickly barred Google TV users from accessing their sites. Now, just about a year later, Google is giving it another try. The hardware – the Logitech Revue and a few Sony TVs – remains the same, but the software got a major update. A new, simpler interface should make using the service easier and the improved search should make finding content a snap. The new Google TV experience, running on top of Android 3.1, also includes an updated YouTube channel and – maybe most importantly – a selection of apps from the Android market.

What remains the same for now, however, is the hardware selection: there’s the $99 Logitech Revue with its unwieldy keyboard remote and a small number of Sony TVs with Google TV built-in (with a remote that’s just as complicated).

Will Google TV Sell This Time Around?

Early reviews of the first generation of Google TV were generally negative (especially after all the major media companies blocked access to their sites) and it never gained any traction in the market. Users who wanted to watch Netflix or Hulu on their TVs mostly opted to buy more straightforward and cheaper devices from manufacturers like Roku or used their Xbox or Playstation to watch Hulu and Netflix. Hulu, by the way, remains absent from the Google TV lineup.

Among the new apps are offerings from AOL, Pandora, CNBC, CNN Money, the Wall Street Journal and others. Individually, none of these will likely drive buyers to Google TV, but having a large ecosystem of video services available may make the hardware an easier sell.

Still Not for Cord Cutters

The area where Google TV beats its competitors is the integration with regular live TV. Indeed, Google itself points out that it thinks this era of TV is “not about replacing broadcast or cable TV; it’s not about replicating what’s on TV to the Web. It’s about bringing millions of new channels to your TV from the next generation of creators, application developers, and networks.” Google clearly doesn’t want its TV initiative to be seen as competition for the current players. Instead, it wants Google TV to be complimentary to the network and cable programming that most people still subscribe to today.



5:57 pm


ChromeOS Just Got a Bit Faster and More Secure

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The latest version of Google’s ChromeOS now allows Chromebooks to resume faster and offers support for 802.1x secure WiFi and VPN networks.

When Google first announced the idea of Chromebooks, a series of small, Internet (and Chrome)-centric laptops made by manufacturers like Samsung and Acer, its engineers touted the fact that – unlike other laptops – Chromebooks would actually get faster over time. Chromebooks, Google said, would see the same kind of performance gains that users of its Chrome browser have gotten used to. Now, with the release of the latest stable version of the ChromeOS operating system that powers these devices, Google is starting to fulfill this promise.

The Chrome browser, of course, continues to get faster with almost every release, but according to Google, the company also managed to get ChromeOS to resume from sleep about 30% faster than before. Starting up a Chromebook generally doesn’t take more than 6 or 7 seconds these days and a resume from sleep is virtually instant, so these speed differences won’t make much of a difference in the real world. It is still nice to see that Google is still working on shaving off a few seconds from the startup and resume procedure here and there.

Besides this speed increase, the latest edition of ChromeOS also brings support for virtual private networks (VPN) (an essential feature for many business users) and support for secure 802.1x WiFi networks.

In addition, Google also notes that a number of new services that are compatible with ChromeOS, including Netflix, Amazon’s HTML5-based Cloud Reader and a tech preview of the Citrix Receiver (for running virtual versions of high-end desktop software) are now available.



3:23 pm


Netflix Raises Prices, Launches Separate DVD and Streaming Plans

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Netflix just announced a major change to its pricing plans that could make your monthly subscription a bit more expensive if you want to get both streaming video over the Internet and DVDs in your mailbox, but could save you a few dollars if you don’t want DVDs or don’t need the streaming service. Until now, Netflix offered a plan that included both streaming and DVDs for $9.99. Now, Netflix will offer these two services as separate plans. Streaming will now cost $7.99 and if you want DVDs, the company’s new plans now start at $7.99 for its 1 DVD out at-a-time plan. The price for getting both plans will be $15.98 per month. (more…)



5:23 pm


Cord Cutting: It’s Easy if You Try

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Cord cutting, that is cancelling your cable or satellite contract in favor of going Internet TV-only, isn’t as hard as it sounds. Chances are, unless you are a real TV addict, you can easily live without cable these days and switch over to an affordable set-top box from Roku or Boxee with a subscription to Hulu Plus and Netflix.

My Experiment in Cord Cutting

While the pundits are still discussing whether cord cutting is real, I decided to see what life without cable would be like and cancelled our cable subscription about two months ago. Since then, I’ve used nothing but a basic Roku box to watch TV shows. Indeed, if you’re already somewhat picky about the shows you watch, cutting the cord turns out to be pretty easy.

Today, for a total of $16 per month, we subscribe to Hulu Plus and the most basic Netflix plan. We still watch virtually all the shows we looked at before and when news breaks, we can watch Al Jazeera’s live stream, which more than makes up for not getting to see the talking heads on CNN, MSNBC and Fox.

Before I cancelled our cable subscription, we were already watching virtually all of our TV from a DVR anyway, so the idea of time-shifting shows was nothing new. Unlike with a DVR, Hulu Plus doesn’t let you fast-forward through ads, though. Given that it only shows one ad at a time (often as short as 15 seconds), however, these interruptions are far more bearable than the 5-minute blocks you find on regular TV.


A few words about my experience with the Roku box: It just works. Its user interface could react a bit faster and its animations could be smoother, but I have not complaints about the video quality (which is the only thing that matter in the end) and thanks to a fast Internet connection, I haven’t run into any issues with degraded video quality or buffering streams yet. The Roku, in my opinion, offers more flexibility than an Apple TV at this point (which doesn’t support Hulu Plus) and is also the cheaper option in the long run.


Missing Shows

There are major holes in the Hulu and Netflix lineup, though. There are barely any CBS shows available, for example, which means that if you are addicted to all 15 franchises of CSI, you are out of luck (same if you want to see 60 Minutes). While many Fox shows are available on Hulu Plus, American Idol is not (but you can still get your reality TV fix thanks to ABC’s Dancing with the Stars). Oddly enough, some shows (like Fox’s Fringe) don’t stream on Hulu Plus but are available for free on Hulu’s free website. Missing in action, too, for the most part, is live sports, though that is rapidly changing and you can now see both NBA and MLB games live on the Roku. I couldn’t care less about watching sports on TV, but at least it’s good to know there are options.

Filling the Holes

Of course, just because you broke off your relationship with your friendly neighborhood cable TV provider doesn’t mean you can’t get free, over-the-air TV anymore, so most of these holes are easily plugged by a simple antenna (though you would actually have to sit through the ads and be in front of your TV at the right time – just like people used to do 10 years ago…).

You Can Do It if You Try – But Know What You’re Getting Into

That said, though, cutting the cord is obviously not an option if you just need to see Oprah, Dr. Phil and every show on the Food Network. It is easily an option, though, if your TV diet mostly consists of watching the Daily Show and a few select programs that are available on Hulu and Netflix streaming. Indeed, I’ve watched uncounted hours of interesting documentaries on Netflix instead of vegging out in front of yet another mindless show on Home and Garden TV.

My advice for those who want to cut the cord: do a test run before you cancel your cable subscription. If you can switch over without the constant urge to turn on your cable box again, you’re probably good to go.



11:30 am


Microsoft Wants to Make Emails More Interactive: Partners with LivingSocial, Netflix, Posterous and Others

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Microsoft wants to make emails more interactive and turn them into something akin to small web apps. Today’s emails mostly consist of static text or HTML and, for the most part, this has not changed much since the advent of the modern Internet. Theoretically, you could run interactive elements inside an HTML email with the help of JavaScript and other web technologies, but for security reasons, virtually every online and offline email client does not allow this. Because of this, when you open your daily LivingSocial email, the message can’t include an interactive widget that tells you how much time you have left to buy or if a deal is already sold out.

Microsoft wants to change this, however, and is partnering with LivingSocial, Netflix, LinkedIn, Orbitz, Monster and Posterous to bring interactive elements to their emails when they appear in Microsoft’s Windows Live Hotmail service.

Dharmesh Mehta, the director for Windows Live product management, will officially unveil this new functionality at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco today.

Microsoft first piloted this project with Monster, starting in December 2010. LinkedIn is currently also piloting these enhanced emails, while Posterous and LivingSocial are in the process of finalizing their implementations. Netflix’s support is still a bit further out.

Making Email More Productive

I talked to Dan Lewis, a senior product manager on the Hotmail team, earlier last week, and he explained that Microsoft’s reasoning behind this project is to make email more productive. Active Views in Hotmail were among the first steps in this direction (active views allow you to see videos, Flickr galleries and package tracking information right inside of Hotmail’s web interface).

Today, 90% of emails that arrive in Hotmail inboxes include links (though some are surely just links to privacy notices and similar content in the footer of a message and aren’t likely clicked upon by the service’s users). Hotmail’s Active Views feature addresses some of these, but to interact with most of the content in today’s email messages, users still have to go to another website.

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“The message is the application”

As Lewis told me, “it’s time for a new kind of email that allows you to do more from the message itself.” The idea here is to turn emails into something akin to web apps themselves (“the message is the application,” as Lewis put it when I talked to him).

In practice, this means that when you open up an enhanced email from Posterous about a comment on your blog, for example, the message can display all the current comments (including those that arrived after the email was sent!) and provide you with a dialog that allows you to reply to the comment.

For Netflix, this system would allow you to see the most recent recommendations for your Instant Queue, for example, no matter how old the email is – and add movies to your queue right from the message without ever leaving Hotmail.

Security

In the long run, Microsoft hopes to open this system up for any email sender, but for the time being, it’s working with the small number of partners to pilot this system. A little piece of information that these partners add to the message header tells Hotmail that a special version of the email is available for display in Hotmail.

As I mentioned above, the main reason for banning these features from virtually all modern email systems today is security. To ensure that the emails that arrive in Hotmail are safe, Microsoft actually sandboxes the code and isolates it, so that it can’t harm a user’s machine. In addition, it checks who the sender is and will only display these messages when they come directly from the source. Because of this, these interactive elements won’t show up if you forward a message to a friend, for example. Hotmail’s servers also inspect the message to ensure that there is no malicious code in there and users will have to enter their security credentials for the respective service the first time they open one of these messages.

Standards?

For the time being, this is obviously a Hotmail-only feature. There is currently no standard for displaying this kind of information within emails yet. While Lewis acknowledged that “there is definitely an interest to turn this into a standard,” he also admitted that different services will likely take different approaches to add these kinds of features to their clients.



9:00 am


Netflix: Support for Subtitles Finally Coming to Roku and Xbox 360 Later This Year

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Want to know which Netflix movies currently feature subtitles? There is now a page for that. According to Netflix’s chief product officer Neil Hunt, the company currently offers subtitles for about 30% of its catalog and the plan is to bring this feature to “80% of viewing coverage” by the end of the year.

Update (7/20/2011): Roku has now announced the next version of its hardware. This new version include a new Netflix channel with subtitles. It’s not clear yet if the old hardware will also get the same update.

The lack of subtitles has long been a major criticism of the company’s otherwise stellar service. Indeed, as much as I love Netflix’s streaming service on my Roku box, the fact that it doesn’t offer closed captioning makes it a bit less appealing. While international films all feature subtitles already (because they are “burned in” to the picture) and a lot of the company’s streaming content already supports subtitles, you can’t see them if you watch on a Roku box or Xbox 360 because the native Netflix players on these devices don’t support this feature yet. This will soon change, though. According to the company’s latest update, both the Roku box and Xbox 360 will get updated Netflix players with support for subtitles “this summer or later.”

It’s worth noting that those who watch Netflix on their PCs, Macs, Nintendo Wiis, PlayStations, Google TVs and Boxee Boxes can choose to see subtitles on their devices.

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10:56 am