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The frenzy that is holiday shopping is in full swing, and consumer electronics are topping many shoppers’ lists.

The good news for streaming media: Many of these must-buy electronics will be streaming media devices, capable of connecting users to (almost) all the video content that the web has to offer.

We spoke to a range of players in the streaming media space to find out what’s hot this year, what’s not, and whether streaming media has finally been embraced by the mass market.

This Year’s Hot Buys

Best Buy is the leading consumer technology outlet, both in the United States and Canada. So it only made sense to ask its staff which streaming media devices will be hot this holiday season.

The answer? “PS3,” said Best Buy spokesperson Danielle Jang. “Boxee TV. And our exclusive Noontec smart TV upgrader, which provides access to over 500,000 apps, Web browsing, and online games.”

Other sources gave their nods to two other streaming media manufacturers. “I think Apple TV and Roku will continue to be hot,” said Greg Fadul, co-founder of Grace Digital, Inc., a maker of streaming media receivers. “They have the best quality content and decent GUI.”

Apple TV“The Roku and Apple TV will be hot,” agreed Streaming Media executive vice-president Dan Rayburn, who has turned much of his focus to connected devices over the past 2 years. But these aren’t the only devices to catch his attention this season. For instance, “the Boxee TV has just started shipping,” Rayburn said. “It’s a pretty cool box with cloud-based DVR functionality.” He also likes the new Slingboxes that have the same functionality as older models, but cost less.

“I expect the new $99 Roku Streaming Stick — which brings full streaming capability to any ‘Roku Ready’ HDTV — to be popular as well,” said Rayburn. “In short, there are a lot of streaming media devices that should do well this shopping season.”

“This just may be the year of the ‘streaming settop box,’” said Philip Nelson, NewTek’s SVP of artist and media relations. “Roku and Apple TV are the easiest to use device for people who want to consume streaming content on a television. They should both be hot sellers this year.”

“Just turn on your TV and you’ll see your answer,” quipped Fred Jacobs, president of the Jacobs Media rock radio consultancy/app maker. “iPhone, Samsung are the hottest, but everyone’s jockeying for position.” Jacobs believes that Apple’s new iPad Mini and the Kindle Fire will generate sales. “It’s going to be a very Mobile Christmas — again,” he said.

Roku Streaming StickCisco’s Keith Kocho offered a one-word prediction; which he repeated to make a point: “Tablets, tablets, tablets,” said the director of strategy and business development for the Cisco Service Provider Video Technology Group. “There is pent-up demand at the lower end of price point in the market, so [we] expect that to be targeted by all players.”

Mobovivo, Inc. CEO and founder Trevor Doerksen based his predictions on the numbers. “The Los Angeles Times reported that 40 percent of U.S. teenagers said they have an iPhone and 44 percent say they have a tablet,” Doerksen said. “The Globe and Mail report on the same analyst survey mentioned that 62% of teens plan on purchasing an iPhone for their next phone. [So] Apple is defining what will be hot. The big question for this Christmas is which Apple product will be purchased the most.” (Note: Mobovivo specializes in multiplatform video delivery systems and apps.)

“Apple will still dominate, but watch out for both Roku and Boxee,” warned Richard Kastelein, publisher of www.appmarket.tv. The reason: “Roku just cut a very interesting deal with 3M that takes a whole new tack in terms of viewing experience,” he explained. Meanwhile, “Boxee just unleashed a $99 box that contains an antenna to watch broadcast high-definition television, and a DVR system that gives you unlimited online storage of your recordings.”

Boxee TVOne last hot buy for Christmas 2012: “The launch of the Wii U game console also can’t be overlooked,” said Mike Nann, Digital Rapids’ director of marketing and communications. “But overall, the hottest-selling devices for consuming streaming media will likely continue to be tablets, with the market’s existing momentum bolstered by?the iPad Mini, Google Nexus 7 and Microsoft Surface.

“Again, there’s a two-way street here,” Nann added. “While tablets helped drive adoption and acceptance of multiscreen streaming video, conversely video consumption is a key driver of tablet sales.”

What Are Consumers Looking For?

Today’s streaming media devices are slicker than ever. But slickness alone doesn’t sell: What consumers (and their “giftees”) want is “simplicity and ease of use,” said Best Buy’s Jang. This means that a hot-selling streaming media?device is “something that complements their existing home entertainment eco-system, is easy-to-use, intuitive and that the whole family can use,” she noted. What also sells is “the ability to play back lots of diverse local content off a USB stick or HDD.”

“I think you can boil it down to four areas: Ease of use, apps, ecosystem integration and increased performance and resolution,” said Cisco’s Kocho.

“The techies want power and flexibility but the general consumer wants something that is easy to use,” said NewTek’s Nelson. “With consumption of streaming video hitting the mainstream, an easy to use and elegant user interface will be key.”

Consumers want portability and versatility as well, said Jacobs — plus devices that convey a sense of “cool.” “You cannot underestimate that last factor,” he cautioned. “That’s why people stand in line for the latest iPhone, and why Samsung makes fun of them.”

As someone who watches the online space very closely, Kastelein is sure he knows what consumers want this Christmas. “That’s simple: Video and TV when they want it, on what device they want it on, and preferably free or a la carte,” he said. “‘Tapas TV’ is the future.” So streaming media devices that support this functionality have an edge.

What They Don’t Want Under the Tree

There can be no silver lining without a cloud, and no “Hot Products” without “Not Hot Products” to counterbalance them. So what products do the experts expect people not to be buying this Christmas?

For his part, Grace Digital’s Fadul sees Google TV suffering from Not Hot status. The technology is “too technical,” he explained, and it requires “too much pulling of content.”

Google TVKastelein shares Fadul’s doubts. “Google TV? They lost too much consumer confidence in their first attempt,” he said. “I don’t see them cutting into the market significantly until perhaps they figure out how to solve their UX and UI issues, which are the catalyst for their problems in creating market share.”

Kastelein’s skepticism also extends to streaming media products made by D-Link Corp.; Dolby Laboratories, Inc.; Microsoft; Sony; VIZIO, Inc.; and Western Digital Corp. “because they just aren’t getting real mass market traction,” he said. “TiVo? Not. But they will make a fortune in arm-twisting with their patent portfolio and licensing.”

iPads may be hot this Christmas, said Doerksen, but don’t expect a “halo effect” to drive demand for other tablet-style streaming devices. “I’m not convinced consumers are looking for ebook readers or even a 7" tablet,” he said.

This doesn’t mean that alternatives won’t sell. In fact, Doerksen predicts that “aggressive pricing and book store retail presence” will result in a lot of Barnes & Noble NOOK and Kobo tablets being snapped up by shoppers. However, “I suspect many, if not most of thEse will be returned by January so that users can purchase more expensive and feature rich iPods, iPhones, and iPads,” he said.

Meanwhile, if “cool is the rule” to hot devices this year, a lack of cool is the kiss of death; at least according to Jacobs. Products that he sees as suffering from Not Hot status include U.S.-marketed Windows Mobile phones: “We keep asking our clients about it, and get virtually no response,” he said. “And BlackBerry is on life support at this moment. It’s hard to imagine that they will be around in Christmas 2013. [As a result], we’ve stopped development for BlackBerry apps.”

Has Streaming Media Become Mass Market?

Clearly, streaming media capability is a big selling feature this holiday season. So does that mean streaming media has finally become a mass market phenomenon?

Yes, replied Fadul. “It’s here,” he asserted. “Currently, Internet streaming augments over-the-air TV, satellite, and cable channels. As content licensing deals expand, it ultimately becomes a replacement technology.”

“Our answer would be a definite yes,” echoed Nann. He emphasized that the acceptance of streaming media is a two-way process: Online content drives viewer demand for devices, and devices spur viewers to look for content. “It’s the consumer adoption of an expanding range of video-capable devices — combined with cheaper network access and changing viewing habits — that are driving the demand for greater multi-screen/streaming availability of more content,” Nann said.

“Streaming media is a mass market activity,” declared Doerksen. “From radio to video, there is an insatiable appetite.”

“I am not sure when we passed the inflection point,” said Kocho, “but I would say that we are well in the acceleration point of the maturation cycle; so yes.”

Jacobs is a bit more tentative about streaming media achieving mass market status — but only a bit. “It’s becoming very mass market, and as the automakers continue to link smartphones with their digital dashboards, streaming media will become even bigger,” he predicted.

Best Buy’s Jang is similarly slightly reserved. “Media streaming is maturing,” she said. “Providers are branching out and creating content that will be exclusive to online streaming, which is causing streaming to gain popularity and momentum.”

The last word goes to NewTek’s Nelson: “Yes!” he exclaimed. “When my Dad — who types in all caps with two fingers — is going to Netflix to watch shows, you know that streaming has definitely hit mass market.”

This article appears in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine under the title "Buying Guide: Home Streaming Devices."

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