Earlier this week Intel announced what we'd heard rumors of in months past, that it would be creating an IPTV service along with a custom software and hardware platform to deliver it direct to consumers. A few hours after the announcement, I had the opportunity to speak with Erik Huggers, formerly of the BBC and currently heading up Intel's new Media division.

For years Intel has tried to grab a slice of the TV business. Remember the Intel CE series of Atom based SoCs? How about Sandy Bridge's Intel Insider technology? Both of these were focused attempts to solve problems within the TV industry, but both ultimately went no where. Intel's solutions thus far have been too narrow in scope to do anything.
The TV today reminds me a lot of smartphones in the early 2000s. There's tons of potential, but largely ruined by slow hardware, kludgy user interfaces and heavy fragmentation both on the content side and on the cross platform compatibility side. Much like the smartphone, the solution to revolutionizing the TV as a platform is unlikely to come from within the existing market. And just like the smartphone revolution, a disruptive solution here may very well come from a computing company.

What Is It?

At a high level Intel's unnamed TV play seems to work like this. Intel negotiates deals with content providers, said content lives on a server farm somewhere (likely running tons of Xeons courtesy of mother Intel). Using a box that Intel will sell you, you'll get access to this content over the Internet. The box will run an OS and software layer both developed by Intel. The content will include live TV, traditionally only available via a cable TV subscription. The box Intel will sell you won't act as a traditional PVR/DVR, instead you'll be able to activate a catch-up feature to pull down older episodes after they air, as well as live TV. How far back you'll be able to catch up will depend on the content license, it's technically feasible to go back as far as you'd like - but not all content owners will allow it. Intel's service will also include video on demand features to fill this gap. The goal is to provide one platform where you can get access to everything: live TV, episodes/content that have already aired, and even older content through VoD.
The content will be bundled together in some form. This isn't a purely á la carte TV service, but rather bundles put together by Intel Media rather than your cable company. Think cable channel/network bundling, but perhaps more granular than you're used to. Simply offering the same bundles at the same price as your cable company won't work, so I suspect the bundles will have to be more user friendly (more sensible, smaller, etc…).

ATI's OCUR CableCard Tuner for PCs, another failed solution to the problem from 7 years ago

Intel doesn't seem to have any intentions of keeping the content exclusive to this one box either. Erik wants to see this content on Ultrabooks, smartphones and tablets as well as on your TV. It sounds a lot like the holy grail of digital convergence: any content, on any device, anywhere. Netflix was really one of the first to achieve this level of ubiquity, but only really for older content. Intel seems to want to do this with live TV.
Intel isn't talking about bitrates or codecs yet, nor is it disclosing what content providers have already signed up for the service. The platform will launch this year and it'll be immediately apparent whether or not Intel is on the right track after that happens. 
Pricing is also unknown at this point. Erik was careful not to brand Intel's TV service as a value play, implying that you may not actually save any money vs. your current cable provider. It's pretty obvious from the start though that Intel can't just offer a better experience than your cable TV provider, it also has to offer a cost competitive platform as well. 
The Backstory: Why Get into the TV Business?
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  • mrdude - Thursday, February 14, 2013 - link

    Targeted ads have been available since Google, Microsoft and others have been prowling our online behaviors. These "new" ads aren't new at all and they're something that the big content providers have had access to, and probably even used to some extent, for a while now.

    These ads aren't going to supplement the billions upon billions of dollars that they'd lose by providing a la carte programming. Ask Facebook :P
  • poorted - Friday, February 15, 2013 - link

    I agree with this for the ads - yes, premium networks still need to be paid by subscription, but there is enough over the air programming that is entirely ad supported to show that that model works too.

    From the point of view of that broadcaster, why would they care if the viewers are watching over the air or over the internet if they are watching the same ads? In fact for that broadcaster, the internet route would even be preferable, they get targeted ads, and people can tune in from outside their transmitter range if they like.

    From their point of view, they get more viewers, more ad revenue, and better demographic information.
  • taltamir - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 - link

    People went to piracy because it supplied a better product, what people actually wanted.
    Netflix and hulu came in and gave people that same product.
    The IP owners are desperately clinging to their guns and many view netflix and hulu and the like as an enemy.

    The intel offering is basically netflix, only crappy. With the promise of new content. There is absolutely no reason netflix can't offer new content but the MPAA members don't want them to. Intel is trying to appeal to them with a tech that gives them that same measure of control and provides the same sub-par service that nobody actually wants to buy.
  • taltamir - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 - link

    " clinging to their guns" - should be clinging to their distribution models... I must have had something else on my mind
  • Crono - Thursday, February 14, 2013 - link

    ... At least it will for me. I don't want channel based subscriptions like cable companies provide, nor do I want a bundle of multiple services like existing streaming boxes.
    I just want the ability to select individual currently airing programs and internet content (podcasts and other episodic content) so I don't have to wade through reality shows. I don't want to see ads or commercials, either.

    Now if such an a la carte service were available even at a premium, I wouldn't hesitate to get it. I don't like cable TV anymore, I like being ble to watch documentaries, educational programming, and shows like Top Gear. Give me something like that and a good hardware/software device, Intel.
  • Krysto - Thursday, February 14, 2013 - link

    Only if we ignore that Intel has pretty much failed at anything that doesn't have to do with PC chips. They've only managed to create a relatively sustainable business in the SSD market, but they are not the best, nor the biggest there.

    The one who gets the smart TV market is not going to be a mostly hardware company. And just wait until you hear how much these Intel set top boxes are going to cost....that should wake people up to reality pretty fast.
  • poorted - Friday, February 15, 2013 - link

    True, unless their play is just to enter the market with awesome devices at reasonable prices but leverage all the cable companies to use their hardware. If they can get the TV market using their chips or standardized on x86 or whatever, then essentially they wouldn't care if their consumer offerings burn cash and fail, they'd have the bigger victory that they haven't been able to get in the mobile space.
  • IanCutress - Thursday, February 14, 2013 - link

    Not sure how it entirely works in the US, but in the UK we all get five basic channels for free, two from the BBC (no ads) and three free-to-air (with ads). For a £20 one-off set top box we get Freeview, another 30 channels or so, all with adverts apart from the BBC ones. For a bit more you can buy a box with Freeview HD and Freeview+, allowing a DVR type of arrangement. To watch any BBC program broadcast in the past week, we get iPlayer, and ITV/C4 have content on their On-Demand services too.

    The only show(s) I watch religiously are Top Gear and Formula 1. Top Gear is BBC2, so covered by normal TV and iPlayer, and Formula 1 is in a weird flux where all the races are shown in full on a cable company (Sky), half the races are show in full on the BBC, and the other half are highlights-only on the BBC.

    The only other things I watch are usually BBC issued comedy - QI, Mock The Week, Have I Got News For You, or sometimes 8 Out Of 10 Cats on C4.

    At this point in time the only reason I'd ever want to pay £/month is for the Formula 1 races. Don't have time to sit and endlessly watch X or Y, and if it's a well reviewed program (Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under, House) I tend to get the DVD box set. There's also my video library backed up on PC which I can stream when needed.

    Any Intel TV venture would hit the US/North America first, so I wonder if a Europe launch would occur even within 12 months of that. Not that I have any need for it, unless it's a silly £10/month. But even at that price, my ISP will bundle in their cable TV service with my super fast internet connection (but it won't have Formula 1).

    IMO most 'live' content becomes less important as you age, the obvious exception is sport. I'm happy to catch most things 24hr+ after they air with an on-demand or catch-up service.
  • mrdude - Thursday, February 14, 2013 - link

    Hasn't this been tried many times before? with each previous suitor flatly denied by the big content companies?

    The reason these TV channels are packaged together is because they're all under a single network. For example, ABC (Disney) owns all 50 varieties of ESPN and other channels as well. If you want ABC's (read: Disney's) channels then you've got to sign up to the lot of them. This is a practice that's mimicked by the other companies, and that ultimately leads to a stranglehold on all things TV.

    While I appreciate Intel's goals here, and I do believe that a la carte TV and entertainment would be amazing, it's not going to happen unless those companies can compensate the decreased $$ per customer by volume. But considering the very small relative number of people who have cut the cord, this makes the entire scenario extremely unlikely.

    Then there's the other aspects of this to consider, like ads, pirating (YARRRR!!), web presence, and pricing.

    Furthermore, if this is going to be another one of these 'Intel only, everybody else go screw themselves' approaches with respect to hardware (again), then it's going to fail before it even starts. Intel's WiDi is an excellent example. It's a fantastic idea and really forward thinking, but the management decided to sell it with 'Intel only' and as a result it's gone nowhere, slipping inevitably closer to irrelevancy.
  • Porkfist - Thursday, February 14, 2013 - link

    To be suitable for general consumption I'm certain this box will be very limited in it's capabilities. That being said, I would find it very difficult to abandon my HTPC in favor of a box that would limit my flexibility. I suppose I would buy in, only if you are not required to have their streaming box. If that was the case, then it would come down to price.

    I'm currently using XBMC, Windows Media Center with an HDHomerun and a Netflix subscription. I have everything I need. I would like to have some other stuff, such as HBO or Comedy Central but I don't need it. So give me the option to get that additional content, at a reasonable price, and let me roll it into my current setup. If you do that, you've got me hook, line and sinker.

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