Robin Berger /
09.07.2005 12:00 AM
Television Without Boundaries
Sling Media, Orb Networks sell place-shifting

LOS ANGELES

Consumers clearly like the concept of getting TV, music, photos, and other feedback whenever and wherever they want it. And they're becoming intrigued with a means to remote reception called "place-shifting."

Unlike "content portability," which challenged peer-to-peer services, place-shifting doesn't copy content; it streams it.

A handful of companies offer "place-shifting" products; the two most cited are Sling Media and Orb Networks. Both insist they have extensive technological safeguards and a "me" vs. share orientation (which limits log-on to one user at a time) that distinguish place-shifting from portable technologies.

But their approach is totally different: Orb Networks produces software that can be bundled as a service; Sling Media sells hardware through retailers.

Orb Media is a free Internet service that gives users secure remote access to digital media from their home computers through a Web interface. The user downloads the software, provides a user name and password, and can then open a browser and log in to an account from a Web-enabled device (cell phone, PDA, laptop, remote PC). The home computer--which must be equipped with a video card--must be turned on whenever a consumer wants to access the content; though, if the PC is in "sleep" mode, Orb can wake it up when a consumer accesses the machine remotely.

Slingbox is an electronic device that connects to the back of a TV. It takes the signal from a cable box, satellite receiver or digital video recorder and sends it to a PC or laptop via a high-speed Internet connection. Sling Media plans to offer access to select PDAs, smart phones and Macintosh products in the coming months.

Sprint demo-ed the Orb software at CES in January, and in April offered it as a bonus to DSL customers as Sprint Personal Media Link. So far, 1,200 customers have used it, according to Sprint Product Manager Mike Harper.

Harper noted the April launch was "really soft," adding, "we're going to be pushing it hard in the third and fourth quarters of this year." Sprint cited 469,000 DSL lines in its second quarter financial report. The two companies are now collaborating on a "purchasable content engine" that will sell music and movies "like iTunes does" sometime this year.

In contrast, San Mateo, Calif.-based Sling Media is a retail electronics company, said Blake Krikorian, who founded the enterprise with his brother Jason last year. On June 30 they launched the $250 Slingbox nationally with CompUSA, followed by a July 11 launch with Best Buy. At presstime, Slingbox was sold in more than 1,000 stores and on www.bestbuy.com and www.compusa.com

"We virtually sold out within the first 72 hours," said Krikorian. "Each of the retail stores received between four and 20 units--on average, around 10 units or so."

Retailers both here and abroad will sell it by year-end, said Krikorian, and there are plans for a Sling Media online store.

The company also launched an outreach campaign to content owners, distributors and broadcasters (cable, satellite and terrestrial) to explain the product. One stop was the National Association of Broadcaster's Futures Summit last March, where Krikorian was impressed by the collective interest he sparked.

FLACK

NAB senior vice president of communications Dennis Wharton recalls the experience somewhat differently.

"It caused a lot of our members to sit up and take notice," he said. "They had questions on the impact on copyright law and their stations."

As for the technology itself, he said, "we will be watching it very closely."

Dean Garfield, director of legal affairs for the Motion Pictures Association of America, also has the technology on his radar screen. So far, no legal papers have been filed.

"These technologies raise complex legal, legislative and technical issues," said Garfield.

He said the Supreme Court's June 27 decision regarding MGM v. Grokster sent a "clear and resounding message that piracy in any form--whether it takes place on peer-to-peer (networks) or otherwise--will not be tolerated by the courts."

Garfield insisted that he did not suggest that Sling Media or Orb Networks had piracy in mind. "What I'm suggesting is that there should be a new environment where companies consciously make the decision to act responsibly."

And how does a company prove that they're acting responsibly?

"By engaging the industry in a dialogue," he said. He suspected that was happening, though he was not aware of any studios in particular that were thus engaged.

NAB members are also concerned about threats to local broadcasting, said Wharton.

"This hallmark of local broadcasting has been based on broadcasters delivering programming to exclusive territories," he said. "Slingbox blows away that concept by allowing people to tap into their television station anywhere in the world."

Sling Media and Orb Networks say they have actively sought out broadcasters and rights holders to explain the value-added propositions their technologies offer.

"In our conversations with broadcasters they've all said that the local viewer is more valuable to the affiliate than the visiting viewer," said Ted Shelton, Orb Media's executive vice president of operations. "So it's actually beneficial to the affiliates to reach local residents even if they're traveling."

Sling Media's Krikorian said place-shifting gives broadcasters added reach, both geographically and technologically, tapping into rival screens like computers and cell phones as well as airports and offices. He said place-shifting just re-emphasizes what the Internet has already established: "geographic boundaries that were defined 60 years ago are now clearly different."

Allen Weiner, senior analyst at the Gartner Group, believes both Sling Media and Orb Networks are using place-shifting as a means to much greater ends. He said Orb Networks' endgame is to build a significant audience for "other products and services like e-commerce and proprietary programming that's not place-shifted."


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