Tech Break: ivi TV

ivi, an online TV service available for just a few dollars per month for Windows, Mac and Linux systems, could stand to revolutionize internet video, free of ties to the telephone, cable or satellite company…if it could step things up a notch or two…and survive the impending tsunami of lawsuits about to crash into it full force.

The service’s premise is simple: take content that is available for free over the air in various major markets, then pipe it onto the Internet for all to see. Add in a few independent stations via encoders on-location, mix in a premium channel or two and charge a few bucks per month for the package. Bake until done and use a heat gun to check for profit.

The execution of the above concept, however, is where the system isn’t quite there yet, though it does show promise, and has improved since a week or so ago when I first signed up for the service. The two issues from my perspective are quality and content variety; cost, at $4.99 per month after a 30-day trial, plus another 99¢ per month for DVR-esque pause/rewind/fast-forward functionality, is not an issue. THe cost of actually providing the service (mostly bandwidth) and the legal firestorm that may ensue in a short while are not my problems, and won’t be due to the fact that ivi does not require a contract of any sort.

The first issue is with picture quality. On the Mines campus, with a hundred-megabit connection and a high-powered iMac as my playback device, video quality never went above “SD”, or Standard Definition mode. On the plus side, SD-quality video uses less than a half-megabit of data per second on average. However the video is not what I would consider watchable as a TV alternative, with video and audio quality remarkably close to that of an early YouTube video, but with maybe half the frame rate. On my home connection a few days later, I was able to pull down an “ED” (Enhanced Definition) feed, ivi’s second-highest quality tier. Picture quality was higher, but frame rates were still low to the point that watching an episode of Scrubs or even King of the Hill was, personal preferences aside, not enjoyable. My issues could be due to poor graphics processing in the Mac version of the ivi application, but when I’m using a one-year-old notebook that can play full-screen high definition content in other applications without stuttering, the onus is on ivi to improve their product.

Before moving to the content breadth issue, there are two more things to note about ivi’s video quality. First, I was never able to pull down a high-definition feed on the several channels that I tried, despite being on a connection with plenty of bandwidth to do so. Second, ivi has a multitude of quality settings that a user can set as the maximum for displaying content. There are three options available below Standard Definition: Low Definition, Poor Definition and Slideshow. I understand ivi’s desire to allow their software to work on all sorts of computer systems, as well as their need to conserve bandwidth, which is likely rather expensive for a small startup like theirs. However neither of the above notes are encouraging.

The second nitpick with ivi is the variety of TV channels offered on their system. Around forty channels (see their guide for some of them) for a subscription costing just $5 per month is admittedly a bargain, and ivi’s antennas are placed to deliver clean signals from both east (New York City) and west (Seattle) coasts. However two major markets do not a good lineup make, particularly if you live in, say, Denver, which ivi may not ever cover with a local receiver. Maybe the company should add to its Now Hiring page a call for users in large markets to its jobs listing; adding receivers across the country would drastically increase the value of the service, though getting a link to the Internet with sufficient bandwidth to push shows to their servers might be a rather difficult task.

Then there’s the legal element. Some over-the-air broadcasters are now charging cable and satellite companies to carry their signal on a per-subscriber basis. ivi’s presence threatens this market, however remotely, and stands to put a dent in how localized their viewership actually is. On top of this, ivi has the audacity (in the eyes of the content creators at least) to charge for the service that they are offering. ivi has already filed with the United States Copyright Office to pay fees for the content that it is receiving over the air, but that does not stop them from being sued out of a rather meager, angel-funded existence. In fact, ivi has, as of yesterday, filed a preemptive suit to make sure that it is able to continue taking over-the-air video feeds and pushing them to internet viewers…and hopefully making a profit while doing so.

One quick note: ivi does have a few content deals with providers already; a number of its channels are either available freely or as premium content (around 99 cents per channel per month) direct from the source. Video quality is not necessarily better than stations received over the air, but maybe those stations won’t go away after the first round of lawsuits. ivi’s site has a few pages dedicated to content providers wishing to give ivi content, including instructions on installing an ivi encoding server on location. In return for content, ivi promises to give TV stations the ability to tailor ads to a very specific audience, something that can’t be done via traditional multicasted TV setups.

Vill ivi survive? No one yet knows. Do they offer content that is even of interest to folks in the Denver metro area? Somewhat, but not really. Is the quality of the service they are offering up to par? Not yet. But the price is right, the idea is good and that’s a start. 

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