Hulu & Netflix: Watching TV Online

In February of 2005, I pointed out that Battlestar Galactica’s premiere episode was available for free online viewing. (Side note: Have I really been blogging that long?) At the time, streaming full content like that was almost completely unheard of. Now that things have advanced a bit, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at two of the better options for online TV viewing: Hulu and Netflix.

Hulu is a joint venture run by NBC, Fox, and a few other content owners. They’re a blend of current tv shows, ‘classic’ tv shows which no longer air, and a few movies thrown in for good measure. Generally speaking, new episodes show up the day after they air.

What makes Hulu great is the interface. The ‘lights down’ option (dimming the site’s color scheme to make viewing shows easier on the eyes) is a nice little touch, as is the ability to embed just a short custom clip of a show on an external site. And I find that kind of thing abounds throughout the site – I’m constantly being pleasantly surprised by an option I wouldn’t have thought to look for. They even provide RSS feeds to track when new episodes become available. Image quality is nowhere near HD, but it is very watchable on a computer monitor. I really like their blend of popular hits and more obscure stuff like Total Recall 2070, a show from 1999 which isn’t even currently available on DVD. Short ads are shown during commercial breaks, at a far reduced rate from what you’d see on broadcast TV. It’s a very bearable, non-annoying setup. All shows are free.

But all is not perfect. Hulu has a nasty habit of removing episodes from the site after they’ve been there a while. On one hand, I can see this making sense – the studios don’t want to cut into their own DVD sales. But I wish the cuts were made with consistency. 30 Rock’s entire season is available, but The Simpsons is currently limited to the most recent four shows and one from earlier in the season. This kind of patchwork coverage leaves viewers in the dark and confused, with no defined policy as to what will disappear when.

Additionally, I wish I could use Hulu on the Wii or PS3’s web browser. This is Adobe’s fault, not Hulu’s, as for some reason Adobe won’t release an updated version of the Flash tools that Sony or Nintendo would need to make this happen. But if Hulu could come to that many living room TVs so easily, I feel it’d be a killer app.

Many of these shows are also available on NBC and Fox’s separate network websites. But I dislike their interfaces so much that I will never use them when Hulu is available.

Netflix is on the other side of the playing field, in that its online streaming options aren’t free. For all their rental by mail plans with unlimited deliveries, customers also receive unlimited ‘Watch Now’ privileges. While the Watch Now library focuses largely on movies, there are a substantial number of TV shows covered there as well. Unlike Hulu, Netflix’s library focuses largely on older shows. Some of the shows which have interested me so far include Sliders, Quantum Leap, The A-Team, Knight Rider, and Seaquest. Some newer options are also available, such as The Office, but only what has been released on DVD. Netflix does not get new episodes right after they air, which is a definite disadvantage. But there is still no shortage of content. Video quality is near DVD levels, and HD video is in the works.

But the best thing about Watch Now, for me, is that it works easily on my TV. Thanks to a Windows Media Center plugin called vmcNetFlix, I can stream any of the Watch Now options via my Xbox 360’s media center extension functions. It’s a bit technical to get set up, but works like a charm. Alternatively, there’s a new $100 Netflix-sanctioned box which will stream TV & movies directly to your TV. And the service has no ads of any kind!

So the major disadvantage is the aforementioned lack of current shows. The movie selection has similar issues in that very few new releases are available via Watch Now.

There’s no question that we’ve come a long way since streaming of Battlestar Galactica in the dreaded RealPlayer format. But for every step forward, it seems there are also major ones back. Hulu no longer posts current episodes of BSG, though they did until recently. New ones are now delayed by 8 days, which does nothing but annoy consumers. Miss an episode? You can’t watch it until the next one has already aired on TV. A delay of a day or two is reasonable, but 8 days is far too extreme. As for Netflix, their player only works in Internet Explorer on Windows machines. They’ve pledged to add mac support by the end of the year, but there haven’t been any updates on that recently.

Hulu and Netflix are not really competitors in this space. Their areas of focus barely overlap at all, and in fact they complement each other quite nicely. The moment Hulu adds both HD shows and an easy way to get their content off my monitor and onto my TV, I will be cancelling my cable (which I currently have down to the bare bones, less than 30 channels package anyway). And for older catch-up viewing, Netflix is already more than sufficient.

Building Iron Man in the Basement

This post comes from watching Iron Man this weekend. Wait, wait, bear with me! In Iron Man, eccentric billionaire Tony Stark builds himself a suit of powered armor to battle the forces of evil. The key words in that phrase are “builds himself”. Take away the film’s pretend advanced technology, and what we have is a story of a lone man tinkering around and building something revolutionary and amazing in his basement. Stark also happens to be a bona fide super-genius, which got me to thinking: is being a super-genius now a requirement for success in the DIY world?

To clarify: I’m talking about inventing, about building or coding something new; I don’t mean fixing things around the house or building yourself a deck.

Once upon a time in science, major discoveries could be made and work done by making simple observations about the world with basic equipment. Today, that doesn’t feel true anymore. The low hanging fruit of science has been taken. Discoveries today require much more advanced technology and know-how, neither of which are commonly found among the general populace.

Similarly, in the early days of the web it was possible to build something revolutionary with a very basic knowledge of HTML and scripting. Building any search engine is massively impressive when none existed before. Those first steps were easy pickings, and quickly snatched up. Through the wonder of widgets and other embeddable content, today we’re abstracted several layers from the base code which makes the magic of the web possible. And developing those widgets from the ground up is something requiring a fairly advanced knowledge of techniques and tools. We do still have one advantage over the science example – these tools are available to everybody almost free of charge. Anybody can learn AJAX techniques, the only limiting factor is necessary time. Still, the playing field is not entirely level.

I recently had a conversation with a co-worker about A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Could that book’s opening take place today? Would a modern man be able to recreate basic elements of our society in the middle ages like gunpowder or the telephone? Or a computer? We’re all much more connected, more dependent on specialized compartmentalized knowledge of others to get something done.

I think it is crucial that we keep a fundamental focus on the basics of web coding and scripting. Doubly so in the library world, where so many workers come from other careers and non-technological educations. It is one thing to be cut and paste an IM widget into your page. It is quite another to have the ability to fix it when inserting that widget blows up other pieces of code on the page. I have yet to come across a WYSIWIG HTML editor like Frontpage or Dreamweaver that doesn’t require at least a small amount of tinkering in raw code to get a site 100% correct. Understanding how each piece works is very important in making divergent systems play nice together. Without such an understanding, I never would have been able to get a Meebo widget working in Facebook.

I also worry about an over reliance on widgets. It is certainly possible to build a useful website almost entirely out of widgets. But what happens if a widget provider goes out of business? Or changes how their widget works? In addition, a widget is never custom built for your task. Sometimes it takes considerable effort to force one into doing what you want. And even then, results are not always ideal. For example, I really wanted to use a Goodreads widget on my site to display the books I’m reading. But ultimately it didn’t offer me enough customization. I just couldn’t make it work in my site’s design.

I’m not saying that widgets are inherently bad, or should be avoided entirely. Use them when it would be time or resource prohibitive to replicate the same functionality with local code. And they’re wonderful things for building a proof of concept model, of testing something out before going with a full blown local programming effort. Basically, just widget wisely.

(Yes, I used widget as a verb! I like verbing words.)

Widgets and other abstracted tools have lowered the barrier to entry for many elements of website development, and that’s an amazing thing. But don’t be afraid to metaphorically build in your basement