TiVo won’t go down in history for its business plan. But it will be remembered as the company that perfected “time-shifting”—the idea that you can watch what you want, when you want, without being tethered to the TV schedule.
Now imagine getting your media fix not just anytime but also anywhere. Say, streaming Will & Grace to your laptop just minutes after you’ve started TiVo-ing it, or pulling MP3s off your home PC using an iPaq in Tokyo. Silicon Valley startup Sling Media will unveil a device early next year that does just that—and it’s only the beginning.
Place-shifting is the next media revolution, and it’s starting now, thanks to a confluence of factors: 51 percent of all U.S. Internet users have broadband access, music and video are increasingly digital, and wireless networks are ubiquitous. Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft are pouring billions of dollars into the expectation that all entertainment will soon radiate from “media PCs”—computers built to store and manage multimedia—to a variety of devices that can play the stuff. (Microsoft alone is said to have earmarked $20 billion for the shift.)
The hottest devices at January’s Consumer Electronics Show will be portables with big hard drives to play music and even videos. “There’s truly a digital revolution happening,” says Shane Robison, HP’s chief strategy officer. “That’s where HP is investing—in the digital entertainment experience for the home.”
Though home is where the content is, you don’t have to be there to enjoy it. That’s why a number of new companies have recently sprung up around the applications that make media more versatile. In fact, Silicon Valley venture capital firms have poured nearly $100 million into startups that have devised ways to deliver your media to you. “Digital media is a megatrend,” says Sanjay Subhedar, general partner at Storm Ventures in Palo Alto.
Among the new breed of place-shifters are companies such as KineticTide, which will let consumers access videos, photos, and music from their home PCs using their cell phones. Orb Networks will offer a similar service for about $10 a month that works on any mobile device. A Mill Valley, Calif., startup called Grouper has come up with a peer-to-peer application that lets your family and most trusted friends, scattered around the planet, access the fun stuff on your hard drive. “Grouper was designed for a broadband world,” says Grouper co-founder Josh Felser. “Without broadband and digital media on our desktops, this company wouldn’t exist.” Even the cable industry is getting in on the action.
Music Choice, a consortium of cable, tech, and music giants that programs the “radio” stations on digital cable, is banking on cell phones merging with music players. In the coming months, it will launch a bundle of new services to let users listen to music on their cell phones and order music videos on demand through TVs and PCs.
But the TiVo of this revolution could well be Sling Media’s Slingbox. It has much broader appeal and is already attracting investors such as Microsoft, Texas Instruments, and Mobius Venture Capital, which have put $10 million into the project. Still in beta testing, the gizmo is roughly the size of a paperback novel and plugs into a TV, cable box, DVR, or PC. It can send content over the Net to any device with a broadband connection, in real time. Slingbox can even stream live TV to a handheld. Founder Blake Krikorian, a General Magic refugee, came up with the idea in 2001 when he was traveling and unable to watch his beloved San Francisco Giants play. Says Krikorian, “Our content has been locked up in our hard drives. Now we’re setting it free.”