Lean back and enjoy the video experience
Over the past two years, internet video has been a 'lean forward' experience - about watching short clips on community sharing sites such as YouTube. Increasingly, however, content creators are making longer format videos meant for viewing on a television, or a traditional 'lean back' experience.
Several factors are driving the trend. First is the proliferation of high-definition flat-panel displays. This is what the industry calls 'installed base'. For years now, television makers have been prepping the market for high-definition digital broadcasting. The terrestrial broadcasters have been late in getting that content on the air, while consumers are clamouring to put their TVs to use.
Another factor is the growing popularity of peer-to-peer file sharing technologies such as BitTorrent. Who in Hong Kong waits a full season to find out what's happening on Heroes? Instead of watching free-to-air TV, millions have been conditioned to use BitTorrent. This paves the way for legitimate services offering downloads of longer format content.
A third factor is the roll-out of fast internet connectivity. Hong Kong enjoys some of the fastest services in the world, but the next generation makes the common six megabits per second seem pedestrian.
Hong Kong Broadband was the earliest to market with a service that delivers up to 1,000 megabits of data per second. PCCW followed suit with a similar service. Speeds like that are meant for one thing: high-resolution video, the kind you'd rather watch on your television than your desktop.
Finally, the tools of production are becoming cheaper, with some high-definition video cameras priced as low as HK$6,000. The lower barriers to entry will allow amateur content creators to up their game, producing content not just for the web, but for the television as well. Like the desktop video experience, the 'lean back' video environment will take several years to develop.
One key player to watch is Joost, of which Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing is an investor. Pronounced 'juiced', this program is developed by the same people who created internet telephony application Skype.
Like Skype and BitTorrent, Joost uses a peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol, allowing for high-quality television content that can be instantly streamed to viewers with few hiccups. But unlike BitTorrent, Joost has no intention of becoming a platform for piracy and is working directly with content partners on distribution deals.
Mr Li's Tom Online is working on a Chinese-language version of Joost to be rolled-out in the first quarter of this year, while content partners could include mainland broadcasters such as CCTV.
On the hardware side, one of the most notable efforts is by Apple. The company's Apple TV device is a digital media receiver that connects to a television set and synchronises with iTunes on a user's computer. The set-top box supports videos and vidcasts made available via the iTunes Music Store. Microsoft, the world's biggest software company, recently unveiled Internet TV for Windows Media Centre, which downloads, via the internet television, quality programming from selected partners.
Also, the Xbox 360 offers Microsoft entry into the living room. The Xbox Video Marketplace provides standard-definition and high-definition video downloads to the game console. In addition, Microsoft this month announced a partnership with British Telecom (BT) to deliver on-demand movies and television shows via the 360 to BT's broadband customers.
Lesser-known companies working on hardware solutions include Akimbo and Vudu. The Vudu service combines 250 gigabytes of storage with P2P (peer-to-peer) networking, allowing for faster download times. The box comes with a remote and is capable of supporting 1,080p (progressive scan) high-definition content.
Or, if you are like many tech-savvy television viewers in Hong Kong, you'll forgo the need for a separate set-top box and use a computer instead. Simply run a VGA (video) cable, or some other connection, from the personal computer to your flat-panel display and lean back to enjoy.
Michael Logan is the South China Morning Post's multimedia editor