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The Great Land Grab: A Look Back at the Last Year in Media & Entertainment

Here We Go Again: Sling Living the Real Life
For example, consider the cases of Sling Media and RealNetworks.

Sling started out as a hardware player, with a set-top box that connected to cable, over-the-air broadcast, and a variety of consumer devices such as cameras, DVD players, DVRs, and cable boxes. The company did an admirable job with the initial technology design, led by CTO Bhupen Shah; inputs from analog devices streamed out at a variable bitrate to a user’s remote laptop or cell phone.

The first time I visited Sling’s office in 2007 (a few months before the company was acquired by EchoStar for $380 million), Shah held up a printed circuit board from one of the company’s Slingbox devices.

"If we only did hardware," said Shah, "our competition would have an equivalent product within 6 months."

In other words, Sling hardware was only as good as Sling’s software, with its software integrating a good user interface on top of underlying transport protocols and hardware that were masked from the user.

Sling Sling made its name as a set-top box manufacturer, but it is beginning to emphasizeits software’s ability to allow users to access their content anywhere.

Creating "magic" for the end user was the key to initial hardware success, as customers could watch their home television, DVD, or DVR from a distance: The Slingbox was a point-to-point, one-at-a-time contentdelivery system, with a consumer’s Slingbox input being viewed on the same consumer’s Slingbox player.

What if consumers wanted to watch something that was blocked geographically in the location from which they were accessing their Slingbox? That was quite possible. What about viewing content they hadn’t DVR-ed while on the road? Sling needed to figure out an answer.

This is where the parallels to Real begin. In 1996, when I was moderating a panel at a now-defunct show called MultiMediaCom, two Real (or Progressive Networks) representatives briefly demonstrated RealAudio and told the story of its traction in the corporate world on a per-desktop-license model.

"This is what we do now," one of the representatives said, "but we’re really out to change the way broadcasting is done."

This intent to change the world (of broadcasting) led Real to move from its technology play of Real Audio and Real Video (RealNetworks) into the more nebulous world of licensing content and special events (Real.com) with Rob Glaser touting wins in the sporting and concert event space, such as exclusive Major League Baseball (MLB) content.

Sound familiar? If the idea of Real having MLB content brought to mind the recent battle between Microsoft and Adobe for Windows Media and Silverlight versus Flash delivery of MLB games, you’re not having a flashback; it’s happened before, in the first land grab, with Microsoft and Real trading blows over various events.

To emphasize the difference in this third wave, let’s look at some of the bigger issues that Sling faces in a world of content owners that are also establishing their presence in the place-shifting world.

First, the company had whetted consumers’ appetites for place shifting as they watched content. But consumers also wanted the ability to view on-demand content they’d not DVR-ed. So Sling began approaching content owners in an attempt to add content to a desktop or web-only player on its Sling.com website.

Second, perhaps with impending content licensing negotiations in mind, Sling never really moved into the creation of an electronic program guide (EPG) for various Slingbox feeds from around the world. Doing so probably would have jeopardized Sling’s chances of negotiating deals for various types of content owners and licensees because this EPG could let users tune in to Slingbox streams of stations from practically anywhere.

Third, EchoStar—for all its advancements in set-top box technologies and for its acquisition of Sling and its place-shifting technology—is, at heart, a satellite provider, which makes it a battalion in the satellite army, preparing to clash with those in the telecom and cable industries.

In other words, EchoStar’s ownership of Sling has had the positive effect of pushing forward the integration of Sling Media software within the set-top box—complete with DVR recording capability—meaning that Sling’s place-shifting technology can be enjoyed in the living room as well as on the road. Yet, it has had a negative net effect on Sling’s ability to integrate with set-top boxes made by manufacturers that service the cable and telecom industries.

Another correlation to Real comes to mind: After almost a decade (and shortly after a few bruising rounds of public relations warfare that saw users questioning the privacy of playback data from RealPlayers on their desktops and laptops), Real made a move to a neutral space by offering up its Helix server. Billed as an open source initiative, Helix allowed the playback of a variety of content formats, from Apple to Real to Microsoft to MPEG, including H.264. The concept itself was brilliant, and the execution wasn’t too shabby. But there was an underlying mistrust of Real as a provider of overall streaming solutions, especially when the company encapsulated once-competing technologies and formats.

EchoStar, the new owners of Sling, have a similar intent, plunging forward into the cable space after detaching itself from Hughes Electronic Corp. as a way to separate its technologies—including Sling—from its traditional satellite content delivery arm.

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