Hulu needs to get it together.

They were a fledgling challenger to the throne of online video, in a time when YouTube was all anyone knew. Well, not really, but you know. And in those halcyon days of yesteryear (early 2008), life was bliss. You could watch hundreds of hours of TV from years past. I recall watching the entire run of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia based purely on the raucous laughter of my friend Dave when he told me about it. I caught up on an entire run of a show over the course of a couple of years in a few days over the summer. Brilliant! It’s all I ever wanted from TV: be there, when I want to watch you, and I will. Hell, I’ll even sit through ads. I didn’t care! It was the greatest thing to happen to TV since the remote control, as far as I was concerned. I was in on the early beta, and it just got better and better as the weeks went on.

But then something happened. Videos started mysteriously disappearing, replaced with cryptic blog posts and half-hearted apologies. Software that was poised to thrust Hulu into the spotlight even more, like Boxee, was quietly (at least in the beginning) crippled from showing Hulu content over and over. We all speculated why, since the commercials weren’t stripped out, so the idea that the big, archaic content provider logic was decreeing it such wasn’t holding up to scrutiny. Even though it’s often to blame for the asinine decision to only show the last few episodes of a series, as though this would prevent the cannibalization of DVD sales. (PS: I wasn’t buying the DVD anyway, and still won’t, guys, so that incisive, Custer-esque strategy kind of failed. Physical media is dead to me.)

Then the big announcement. Hulu desktop. We got all flustered and downloaded it, and you know what? It’s not that great. Every machine I run it on, Mac OS or Windows, has some issues. Sure, it gets revved up after a while and seems ok, but the experience is just not as smooth as it needs to be. But it suddenly made sense why they would want to kill the Boxee connection. They had their own ball, and Boxee wasn’t allowed to play with it anymore.

So it begs the question: with Hulu limiting/removing available content at any given time based on an ever-changing labyrinth of copyright agreement, and their desktop client not really outpacing the competition in terms of usability, and people clamoring for more, more, more – even to the point of loudly announcing that they would pay a monthly fee to get a better Hulu (myself included) – what exactly is the plan here?

Hulu, seriously. Pull it together. I want to sing your praises from the rooftops again. Please, for the love of all that’s holy in the nerd-tech-TV world, be a force for change and make things work better for all of us. Don’t squander that early lead.

Dropping the ball.

When the iPhone was introduced in 2007, a lot of people scratched their heads and wondered aloud why exactly Apple was partnering with AT&T. Well, Verizon passed on it, believing it to be a failure in the making (and cementing their place in the annals of ‘Bad Business Decison-Making History’ in retrospect), and that left two smaller carriers on different mobile network protocols. So it seemed AT&T was the only choice.

There were a lot of feelings of contsternation, but eventually everyone accepted it and it was laid to rest. Mostly. The phone became a huge success, a cultural phenomenon, and a business coup for Apple, and AT&T rode it all the way to the bank, putting up massive subscriber numbers every quarter. With the advent of the App Store in the summer of 2008, Apple added another layer of complexity to the equation, as independent developers were allowed to touch the vaunted platform (officially) for the first time outside of the quasi-illegal (depending on your definition of the DMCA’s nature and whether or not it was applicable in this case) jailbreak option.

One of the things that a lot of people wanted to see what a decent VoIP option. What application would be the first to offer such functionality? Skype arrived in early 2009, but was limited to Wi-Fi only for calling, although chat and other features were available on 3G. Truphone was also an entrant into this arena, but with less recognition among the general public. Google Voice stepped up, and was believed to be a strong contender, but this week Apple rejected it summarily from App Store contention, and upon further investigation, it was brought to light that AT&T was directly responsible for the action. Many are positing that although the move was contentious and viewed as poor judgment (based on the fact that Skype is available, for instance) it was to be expected, as Apple and AT&T share a relationship based on an understanding that the subsidized price of the phone will be recouped over time with a wireless plan and other options. Allowing a user to operate outside of this arrangement would cannibalize AT&T’s profits.

And finally, here’s a lovely notion that I can’t even begin to wrap my head around. Today Macworld published an article stating that “Apple has told the U.S. Copyright Office that modifying the iPhone’s operating system could crash a mobile phone network’s transmission towers or allow people to avoid paying for phone calls”. Apparently, the jailbreaking process, which Apple has opposed since day one, as it allows experienced users access to the baseband radio, poses a threat to AT&T’s network infrastructure. The article goes on to state that the filing also mentions that “jailbreaking affords an avenue for hackers to accomplish a number of undesirable things on the network”.

What’s that Penn and Teller show I’m thinking of right now? Oh, right.

There’s no way – no way – that I’m going to believe that a hacker with a jailbroken iPhone poses a greater threat to AT&T’s network security than an equally experienced hacker with a laptop and a wireless broadband card does. Yet there is no mention of this kind of security worry. Read that first statement again:

…modifying the iPhone’s operating system could crash a mobile phone network’s transmission towers or allow people to avoid paying for phone calls.

That last part is very telling, isn’t it? AT&T’s not really worried about securing network facilities, because if they were, they’d be sweating every able hacker with a wireless card in his/her laptop. But they definitely don’t want people subverting the constraints of the money machine they’ve put into place with iPhone voice and data plans, because that would severely hurt their bottom line.

Moreover, they’ve crippled other apps in the past (see Sling Player for an example) that would have used the network to stream large amounts of data. They know the network can’t keep up with the iPhone user base. It’s been proven time and again (SXSW, CES) that they dragged their heels into the upgrade process and now are panicking and dropping usability features for users to protect their coffers.

Apple even acknowledges this, albeit in a very tongue-in-cheek way, as evidenced by the comments from this year’s WWDC keynote regarding both MMS and tethering. Surely they can’t be happy with the fact that the carrier they partnered with for this game-changing device has hamstrung progress at every step of the way. AT&T is basically, at this point, riding out the severely limited 3G network’s capabilities as they prep for 4G. But we’re all left to wonder: will Apple still care by the time they get there?

I hope not, because I love my tech for what it does – not what it should be able to do, in the hands of a more capable provider. 

Thanks for nothing, Twitter.

Earlier this week, sensitive Twitter documents were exposed due to the work of some nefarious character. As a result, co-founder @ev advised in a tweet the dangers of having easy-to-crack passwords. I have long put off updating my passwords across the board, but decided, since I had some time, I would finally do it. I can’t remember the last time I made a mistake this egregious.

I changed my password one time, and Twitter locked me out of my own account. I googled how to get back in, and found that I can reset my password through an email that Twitter will generate. So I did this. Fine, I’m back in. Log out, I’m LOCKED OUT AGAIN. So I begin the process again. Back in. Make a few posts, log out, LOCKED OUT AGAIN. I checked to make sure that no other clients are accessing my account. Nothing’s on. I can’t do anything. Every time I try something, I get locked out. How long am I out for? I don’t know, as Twitter’s advice is for me to “chillax”.

Thanks, Pauly Shore. I’m glad that all I need to do in order to get back into my account is “chillax”.

So I’m still locked out of my own account, with no way to get back in short of changing my password AGAIN, and I can’t believe how piss-poor this system is. I’m so glad that I decided to make my life more difficult by trying to protect my sensitive personal information. Had I known it would be this unbearable, I would have simply jammed needles into my eyes as opposed to going through this endless process.

The death of entertainment, at the hands of its purveyors.

As I sit here, patiently waiting for the FiOS installation to be complete at my fiancée’s apartment, I can’t help but think about the massive effect it’s going to have on our entertainment consumption. But more specifically, I’m thinking about how my entertainment consumption has changed over the past few years, due in no small part to the senseless and otherwise counterintuitive anti-consumer actions that companies have taken to prevent people from enjoying their content.

Right now, we are in a transitional state for entertainment. People are spending more time online in social communities and experiencing media from thousands, if not millions of different sources, and the Internet has inspired regular people to create content and share it. More importantly, the companies that give us a large part of the content we enjoy are observing this sea change and want to monetize it, and for good reason. Content can zip around the world online in seconds, and being online opens a dialogue between provider and consumer that simply didn’t exist before. Media companies can now instantly gauge how people react to their products, which is tantamount to their discovery of the Holy Grail. Untold amounts of money get funneled into focus groups and audience analysis for this very reason.

Ironically, although unsurprisingly, these same companies are resistant to this idea of their content being available on the Internet. It took an extremely long time for them to even accept the iTunes model, and it’s been immensely successful for all parties. Music, movies, and television are all readily available through the iTunes store, proving that most people – most – will pay for something if you make it easy enough to access and readily available for them (read: organized, searchable, low barrier to entry).

There is, of course, a subset of the population that will always turn to BitTorrent or other “pirate” methods to obtain media. Entertainment companies want to grind this phenomenon out like a spent cigarette, but they fail to realize that it is this community that does all the innovating, and this community that figured out how to push huge amounts of data around the world with a startlingly easy amount of effort. Many have speculated that the file sharing protocols BitTorrent uses would be of great use to the entertainment industry, if they’d only get behind them, and support them as opposed to fighting natural technological progress tooth and nail, at every turn.

Part of the reason people continue to engage in this behavior is because it is so unimaginably difficult for an everyday person to do what they want to with most of their media. Sure, you can rip CDs into iTunes, but you can’t do that for DVDs. Nope, you can rip them legally, but the act of circumventing the encryption of the disc content is illegal according to the terms of the DMCA. So you’re technically allowed to back up your videos, but only if you know of some kind of binary alchemy that gets the video off without touching the encryption. Impossible. Furthermore, I can’t legally take a movie I purchased on a physical disc, rip it, shrink it, and watch it on my iPhone without breaking the law. I’m supposed to buy another “iPhone ready” copy – of something I already own. This blatant disregard for both honest, paying customers and the shifting needs of consumers at this point in time is insulting, illogical, and ultimately obnoxious. Think about buying a shirt that you were allowed to wear to work, but if you want to wear it to the supermarket, you can’t. You need to buy the same shirt again, slightly different – the “supermarket compatible” version of the garment. It’s fundamentally insane.

The important fact to remember is that the move to ubiquitous, legal Internet content availability is not only inevitable, but it’s already here. Sites like Hulu have made enormous inroads in the Internet world by working directly with content providers, in this case NBC and Fox (and most recently ABC) to bring the content directly to the masses, in a palatable, ad-supported structure. Here’s where things get interesting, however. In a world where ad money flows based on archaic metrics like Nielsen boxes, the Internet becomes a finitely quantifiable entity. When a network sells ad time now, they tell advertisers that they have X million people that they assume are tuning in, based on the extrapolation of data derived from those Nielsen systems. In a time when Google Analytics makes keeping track of your mom’s blog in minute detail not only possible, but relatively simple, this kind of disingenuous statistical manipulation only serves to further weaken a system that is already feeling cracks in its foundation.

The mathematical constant in this equation is greed. Greed fueled by a logic set that is firmly rooted in another time, and only applicable to a culture that is indistinguishable from the one we live in. If I record a show on a DVR, I always jump commercials. No question. If I watch on Hulu, I am forced to sit through a few commercials, but they are fairly unobtrusive, very short, and I don’t even mind them. So why is it that my Internet “eyeballs” are less valuable than the broadcast TV “eyeballs”? Simple – they know exactly how many people are watching – or not watching, as the case may be – online. Broadcast TV, by the very nature of those metrics, does not know, and hence, can continue in an increasingly failing business model, charging money for ads people aren’t watching, and losing viewers in the process, as people move to other distribution methods.

Case in point: if I can see the last five episodes of 24 on Hulu, and have never seen another single episode, yet want to get involved in the series, and perhaps ultimately begin watching the regular broadcast because I fall in love with it, why can’t I see all the back episodes on Hulu? Wouldn’t Fox rather I sit through six or seven year’s worth of episodes and embedded ads (which I  happily would, by the way) than not? I’m not buying the DVDs, nor am I purchasing all the seasons on iTunes. I could rent them from Netflix, a company that is successfully (albeit slowly) bridging the gap between old and new distribution channels with their movie streaming model, but I’m not doing that either, because I’m done dealing with physical media, if I can help it. What I want is to be able to turn on my computer, go to Hulu, and see my episode. Period. No complications, no jumping through hoops, no waiting. I get what I want, instantly, and they get my attention, compliantly watching advertisements I would otherwise ignore, avoid, or not see at all. Instead, I see this, at the top of the Hulu 24 page:

We can offer five current episodes on a rolling basis.

We are currently cycling through Season 1, posting 5 episodes to start, adding one every Tuesday and taking down the oldest as we do so.

It just doesn’t make sense. So unless I happen to sync my life with the schedule Fox is allowing Hulu to use, I can’t see what I want, when I want it. It’s like missing broadcast episodes all over again. It’s absolutely ludicrous!

The world is changing, and peoples’ needs are changing with it. If you force people to stick to something they don’t want anymore, and don’t offer a better alternative, you face two choices: either they abandon you and go somewhere else entirely, or they continue to get your content through the method they prefer, which is sometimes illegal, but easier. Entertainment companies need to embrace these new distribution channels and listen to the voices that actually are consuming the content, not their internal, sycophantic analysts. As for me, I’ll be catching last night’s Dollhouse season finale on Hulu later, just as soon as the FiOS guy gives me the thumbs-up.