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Sep012010

TV wars! A complete guide to Amazon, Sony, Netflix, Apple, Google, HBO, Samsung, and Hulu's plans to change TV forever

The war to control your TV is heating up. Reports are coming in that Amazon is developing a subscription service to compete with Netflix and Sony is working on a full apps platform to compete on a broader scale with Samsung Apps and upcoming platforms like Google TV and Apple's rumored "iTV." In this extended post, I'll attempt to break down what we know so far. 

Two Battles

Really, there are two battles happening here. On one side, we have the Battle of the Platforms. Companies like Google, Apple, Samsung, and Sony want to operate the software platform that runs your TV, and other devices. The days of Cable companies like Comcast dominating your TV are numbered. Soon, your TV will get smart and run applications just like an iPhone, iPad, or Android smartphone. 

On the other side, we have the Battle of the Streaming Services. Netflix practically invented this category, but Amazon, Hulu, HBO, and who knows who else are all ready to take the movie rental company down. 

We know the players, but which platforms and services will reign supreme? I break down the competition below.

Battle of the Platforms

Sony

The Financial Times reports that the company plans to unveil a replacement for its Connect music store that will launch on the PlayStation Network and move its way onto other networked Sony products like laptops, Blu-ray players, and HDTVs. It's unknown if this new service will only offer entertainment content or if it will be a platform for applications like Samsung Apps. Sony is taking a preemptive shot at iTunes and the new Apple "iTV" service rumored to be announced today by also showing off its new service today at the IFA technology show in Berlin (via Kotaku). 

Apple

Apple is playing a its own game. Rumor is that the company plans to release a TV nettop box running the iPhone/iPad iOS operating system. The box will allow users to download apps to their TV, and rent movies and TV episodes directly from iTunes for 99 cents (via WSJ). From the few details we have, this service sounds much like the planned Google TV platform, except it will likely only run on this one Apple device, much like Samsung and Sony's platforms will only run on their devices. Google's platform, like it's Android smartphone platform, will probably work on a myriad of devices.

Google

Google wants to run the software that controls your TV, much like Apple does. The difference is in the approach. Google TV will likely run on a wide variety of devices while Apple's TV service will only run on its proprietary hardware. We can expect Google to run a more open marketplace. Unlike Apple and Sony, who will see Amazon, possibly Netflix and Hulu as threats to their own iTunes/Sony stores, Google is happier being a distribution platform. Or at least it was. The company recently launched a pay-per-view store on YouTube. It's difficult to say where the search giant's priorities lie with an open web these days.

Samsung

Much like the frayed mobile phone market, each TV maker will probably try to make their own TV operating system before adopting a platform by Google or any other third party. After all, it's best to keep your fingers in a lot of pies. At least, that's what Samsung thinks. Samsung has launched the first major app platform for TVs. Whether you want to check your Tweets or watch Netflix, Samsung Apps should have you covered. There are only 88 apps currently in its store, says CNET, but a hundred or so more should be released by the end of the year--not a bad start. The good thing about Samsung's strategy is that, unlike Apple and Sony, it doesn't have a movies and TV store of its own to push so it is likely to have a healthy, competitive marketplace. The bad thing: Samsung Apps only run on Samsung TVs (24% of the market). It's difficult to get developers to support such a fragmented, proprietary platform.

Battle of the Subscription Services

Netflix

Netflix owns the streaming game. It already has 15 million subscribers and 61% of them have used its streaming service. For about $10 a month, the company offers DVDs by mail and unlimited access to a huge library of movies and TV shows that subscribers can stream (watch instantly) for free. The streaming service is available on dozens of devices, including the Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, iPhone, iPad, and any computer. Netflix is putting major focus on streaming. It recently paid around $1 billion for the rights to stream movies and TV shows from a number of companies like Paramount. If Google TV or other platforms will allow it, Netflix seems open to put its software on anything--a smart goal.

Hulu

Hulu Plus is the next evolution of Hulu. Think of it as Netflix, but instead of focusing on streaming movies, Hulu is mostly TV shows. The company is co-owned by ABC, NBC, and Fox and is gearing up for an IPO in the near future. Plus is still in beta, but it looks to offer full seasons of new TV shows and an expanded slate of older content and movies on almost any device, much like Netflix.

Amazon

Amazon hopes to school Netflix and Hulu at their own game. The online retailer has been pitching a TV and movie subscription service to web and entertainment companies for several weeks, reports The Wall Street Journal. It hopes to be the best place to purchase and rent movies and TV shows. The service will likely be available on the web and universally across a slate of TVs, Blu-ray players, the Xbox 360, and other platforms that will allow it. Amazon is behind the game, as Netflix is already available on a variety of devices and is the dominant streaming subscription service. However, like Netflix, Amazon may run into trouble as media giants have shown reluctance to put new content up for subscription streaming. 

HBO

HBO is trying to break free from its Cable subscriber confines. The company has launched HBO Go, a companion to its standard TV subscription service that lets users browse its exclusive library of TV shows and movies on any PC and certain devices, like the iPad. Not impressed? Think of it this way: what Netflix doesn't have, HBO does. The company has exclusive deals with most major Hollywood studios and doesn't appear ready to take a $1 billion offer from Netflix anytime soon. With its popular slate of shows (I am watching The Wire right now), imagine how big HBO could become if it had a Netflix-like app available on most devices and TVs. HBO is a force to be reckoned with. Its competitor Showtime could prove a major competitor as well.

The Next Battle

TVs need to be liberated from Cable companies like Comcast, but it's doubtful that the big guys will go down without a fight. I certainly wouldn't want to give up $50-$150 bucks a month from every customer. Still, Comcast already has its own OnDemand service with streaming capabilities and is looking to purchase NBC. Is it prepping for the changing tides?

Netflix has a huge lead in the streaming race and with Android, Google has proven it can deliver a working open platform, but it's anyone's guess who will win. Services like Hulu and Netflix may be ousted by the channels and movie companies they aggregate. If Fox can launch its own app for $5 a month, why bother with Hulu? If Paramount can release its movies through its own subscription app, why bother with Amazon or Netflix? 

Eventually we may have an open market, but expect a lot of turbulence in the coming months and years. Especially with hardware like the Boxee Box and Roku box hitting the market. However, as someone who recently dumped Comcast completely for a combination of Netflix and Hulu, it's a much rosier world without Cable. It's time we free the TV. 

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