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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  • ajlueke - Friday, February 15, 2013 - link

    Currently, my fiance and I watch most of our TV through DVR means. We watch enough current content to make cable worth the investment, but not necessarily on the exact hour or day that the programs air.

    For me, the Xbox 360 already provides an all in one TV experience when paired as an extender with a PC outfitted with Ceton tuner. On the Xbox, I can watch Netflix, or stream live TV or any recorded programming over the home network. Also, with the My movies plug-in on the main PC, I can stream any DVDs ripped as .VOBs to the Xbox as well, giving me access to all my content on all TVs. The ability to schedule recordings with Cetons handy phone app is a nice bonus as well. The only content I do not have access to on a satellite TV are my .ISO blu-ray rips.
    Of course, only the main TV has a full surround system and larger screen, making it the only location that I really would watch blu-ray content. With this setup, I pay Charter $120 a month for telvision (including Showtime/HBO) and 30mbps internet. I don't really have access to my content on mobile devices, but I do not really consume TV content on the go anyway.

    The only streaming service that has so far caused be to stray from the model above, are apps like HBOGo. I am already paying for HBO, but the app, which is free to subscribers, allows to to essentially watch any HBO program anytime/anywhere. I haven't been buying HBO programming on DVD or recording it on the DVR, as the HBOGo app is updated so regularily and all the programming is available, so I really haven't found it necessary.

    I would love to see TV itself essentially broken down in this way. You pay for subscriptions for the channels you want, and you get access to all their programming via an app. Sadly, I realize this model works well for premium channels, but less so content that is funded through advertising.

    As far as Intel creating a single box for all my content, it already exists as far as I'm concerned. The Xbox provides a link to my live TV/DVR on my PC, Netflix or Hulu Plus access, as well as HBOGo access and the ability to stream all the DVD .VOB disc content that resides on my PC via the My Movies transcode feature.
  • just4U - Friday, February 15, 2013 - link

    Your internet provider has leverage. Typically their also the company you get your Cable TV from. They will fight back.. we see it with Netflix as they try to take their slice of the pie from you in usage fees per gig. High quality streaming at fast rates would add up fast and our greedy monopolies are going to do their best to make you pay one way or the other.
  • annerick - Friday, February 15, 2013 - link

    Anand, Thank you for another informative article.

    For years we've received our content over the air (OTA), and via Netflix disks. OTA gives us high source quality networks including NBC, CBS, ABC, CW, PBS, and FOX. Netflix disks are the perfect complement with high source quality series and movies not available OTA.

    During dozens of sales calls from cable/satellite, I've asked the same question: "What is the minimum fixed cost for pay per view?" The answers are always ridiculous because one must buy some mid level of service.

    To answer your question about cost, "pay as you go" is what I want--access to a wide variety of content with no commitments. I would pay up to about three dollars an hour for desirable content. I might spend $100 in an active month which would be OK as I would have chosen what, and when, to watch.
  • jnolen - Friday, February 15, 2013 - link

    I would like to see two things come from this and both relate to customizing content by subscriber.
    First, I'd like the ability to subscribe, monthly, to specific networks/channels I want. Between the wife and I, if we could pick up the ESPN family, HGTV, DIY, Food, CBS, NBC, and ABC we would be happy. $5/channel or something like that in many cases would be great.
    Second, I would love to see more widespread package programming. We love sports and want to see more targetted packages like MLB.tv, NBA, for specific events/groups of events like the playoffs. I do not watch the NBA much but when the playoffs start I want to watch every single one.
  • YouWish - Saturday, February 16, 2013 - link

    I think I'm ready to go BACK to cable/satellite. This whole Intel thing smells like an epic fail for entertainment lovers. For casual viewers it might be cool but for entertainment enthusiasts who watch tons of movies, shows and sports, I can't see it working at all.

    I'm a big-time show watcher on TV and all this Hulu and Intel nonsense doesn't work for someone like me. I need live channels, channel surfing, sports in 1080p and everything at my fingertips. I miss having a TV experience and Fios, Time Warner, Directv, etc I miss having. Unless a cheaper internet experience can replicate that, it'll never work. It'll be Hulu's cousin that may fare better than Apple TV, but nobody really cares. I don't even know anybody that pays for Hulu Plus or Apple TV, but I know everyone who has cable or satellite.

    Unless Intel can give me true a la carte programming, then it's a no-go. And it'll never happen, sadly, which is why downloading all of my fav shows for FREE is the best option and works for me. Hulu Plus? Why? Netflix? Why? Intel? Why? Exactly.
  • fteoath64 - Saturday, February 16, 2013 - link

    Intel has been addressing this market on all the wrong ways!. They need to target the HIGH-end like doing 4K and 8K transcoding. Allow for either real-time transcoding or pre-transcoded for selected bit-rates of access while maintaining high-quality in the display. They ought to be doing video processing co-processors doing 4K/8K for the studios and drip-feed them downwards. To offer or do STB business, they are heading in the same old thing with a huge disadvantage, they cannot win there (as they have tried). The others are not standing still either. Head-end /server end transcoded content to feed smaller pipes yet giving superb quality is what users are after. This is where "brute-force" cpu/gpu power is needed. Also for users to do "video cleanup" using their c-processors would be very useful in many home instances. Otherwise, it will become a niche market like small-time video processing shops doing this using AMD oct-cores crunching for hours on end. Or end high end i7 cores for that matter.
    At the same time, doing position independing and speaker dependent voice input would be very useful. Yeah, they need to develop special microphones (array mic) and software to zoom into the speaker who maybe moving with background music etc. It is something people dream about in home systems control.
  • HisDivineOrder - Saturday, February 16, 2013 - link

    I think Intel could do something truly amazing here. Or it could be nothing. There's too little info to really judge the matter. I mean, we don't have device specifics, we don't have infrastructure specifics, we don't have content specifics, and we don't have their real intentions specifics, either.

    In short, we don't have specifics on any front and so it's hard to come to any rational conclusion about something we know next to nothing about.

    I'm a cord cutter. I don't see the point in having a cable TV connection AND a data stream connection. Or a voice line AND a data line. I think these things should be one thing. One data stream fully dedicated to data that also provides data that includes current TV content (like Netflix basically). Voice should be a usage of the data stream, not its own beast. SMS should be a part of the data stream, not its own beast.

    But these companies who we've entrusted to do this for us for many years are afraid of becoming dumb data providers as data providers can be replaced and it can be argued they don't need monopolies as much as they once did. Especially if users are eager to have lower prices with little perceived reason to want to stay with one specific carrier/ISP/cable company.

    That's why they've done everything they can to prevent this future Intel seems intent on pursuing. They've 1) destroyed any chance of municipal-based competition (even self-sustaining ones) through cronies in the court systems and legislative bodies in the states, 2) locked down their monopoly status via the same cronies, 3) enacted ridiculous service caps that they say is to guarantee service quality but in fact ensures record profits every single year they say they are struggling to keep up, and 4) own many of the content companies.

    Comcast owns NBC/Universal (the content maker), NBC (the network), and MSNBC (24/7 news as they see it). Time Warner Cable is connected with Time Warner who owns Warner Brothers (the content maker), The CW (the network they co-own with Viacom), and CNN (24/7 news as they see it). News Corp owns 20th Century Fox (the content maker), Fox (the network), and Fox News (24/7 news as they see it). That's to say nothing of all the magazines and other assorted crap each of them owns and dominates.

    These companies have been slowly sliding their pieces together to ensure it's all locked down. Nice and neat. They don't have to kill the Intel venture outright with cronies. They can just starve it slowly of content.

    Btw, a special hand of applause for Meredith Baker. She helped grease the wheels for NBC/Universal being owned by Comcast. Four months after she voted yes, she retired from the FCC and got herself a great, new job that pays a lot better. Guess who gets the job AND free high end cable package with the best internet! I bet she has no caps and programming for the rest of her natural life, too! I imagine she'd also get her own private Comcast customer service rep to help her out any time the connection goes down. 30 pieces of silver sure is provided in odd ways today...

  • don_k - Saturday, February 16, 2013 - link

    What do Apple, Google and Intel all have in common? They all want to launch or have already launched products in the TV space. They all want to provide an alternative to buying subscription TV. They all have licensing issues because the content license owners are also the channel owners.

    That it is possible and has been possible for years to provide the kind of service we all want, streamed to any device at high bitrates as soon as it is launched is a known fact. Yet, it does not exist. Is there not demand for it? The fact that consumers are looking elsewhere for what they cannot get is indication enough of demand. Yet again, nothing will happen. The content license owners will meddle with half there 'solutions', insisting on the consumer signing up to many different services with different clients, UIs and content, bolted on restrictions as to when, where and how they can watch content.

    Meanwhile having a solution that gives you all of these things is a reality for many people, as long as they do it themselves.
  • mr2kat - Sunday, February 17, 2013 - link

    Intel tried very hard to sell media processors to the BBC, and to put it politely Erik's organization poured derision, scorn and rejection on Intel's offerings. So you have to wonder what genius in Intel though Erik was a good prospect to pick up the remnants of Digital Home.

    IP TV is an idea that was fine - some either years ago. It's just the latest in a series of incredibly ill considered ideas from Intel that date all the way back to VIIV and their Widget Channel. But why is it stupid? Well let me give you some context here. Comcast and other Cable or Satellite companies, have a long history with media producing companies ranging from the big TV channels to the TV and movie studios. This gives them a great deal of credibility when negotiating contracts, terms and conditions. Intel, on the other hand, has absolutely none. Not even with Erik of the BBC at the helm.

    So why would you want IP TV anyway, and why would you want to fork out money for Intel's expensive and rather poorly designed silicon? By contrast I can buy, or rent, the latest Comcast box that does everything that IP TV does... and a whole load more. Best of all the media is already there and waiting. Now I can have TV anywhere in my house, delivered over IP or other in-home technologies. I can record as many TV channels as I like and increasingly with the headless architecture I can get the programming I want, when I want. That's a VERY hard act for IP TV to follow.

    So IP TV will appeal to people who don't have cable or satellite and who do not receive their high speed internet through cable. Within this ever shrinking domain, IP TV will appeal to people who don't watch or want to watch a huge amount of premium content or premium TV in particular. Outside of a bunch of 3rd world and developing countries, that isn't a huge market.

    One of the big problems with Intel is their fundamental business model, which is to give the customer what they are asking for. Now this sounds obvious and right, and indeed it is. However the media world is dynamic and complex; to play in their market you must understand where the market is headed and where it is going to be in five years time or more. To those of us who Know (rather than guess) the Cable world had adopted a leadership role in IP TV and beyond. But I remember the day, with utter horror, when I listened to senior Intel management deciding to suspend Cable validation to focus on Smart TV and IP TV. It was, to put it politely, demoralizing.

    The problem is that Intel has spent a huge amount of money of SoC for media with no real hope of turning a profit. To a large extent they missed out on the mobile revolution which they could so easily have dominated. Even in media processors, they failed to realize that most of the memory and much of the peripheral silicon should've been integrated to their SoC. They failed to appreciate the market potential of their own SoC solutions in diverse markets. They've had a dozen smart car projects on the drawing board but nothing that gelled (again because the decisions had absolutely nothing to do with what the market would want and expect in five years time). So let's hope that out of all this trying they finally get something right. But news flash! IP TV is a niche market. At best.

    Please Intel, wise up. The ARM architecture needs some work because it doesn't scale as well as it should (and could) and because its real-time model is similarly flawed. You could fix all of that and deliver the best, lowest powered ARM solutions in the world. And flatten everyone. But you need to put your pride aside and do the right thing. Please.
  • mr2kat - Sunday, February 17, 2013 - link

    Sorry, I am dyslexic. Mean to say "some eight years ago". Not "either years ago". Adjust your sense of reality accordingly as I probably made other typos in this hastily constructed missive.

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