HSN Brings Video Shopping to iPhone

Retail shopping on television has long been part of two worlds: On one hand, the late night infomercial promised untold wealth (or a really good set of knives) if the consumer would call now, while on the other hand were the full-time shopping networks that provided goods and products that consumers actually want and use. With the advent of web streaming more than a decade ago, the promise of migrating both infomercials and television shopping to the web seemed certain.

A few issues stood in the way, though, including daunting technical hurdles to show streaming videos with a high enough quality to allow all the small character generated (CG) text boxes to be clearly seen. Beyond the technical issues, though, the question became one of duplication of effort, since most locations with a fast enough DSL or cable modem connection also had a television.

Fast forward to 2009, though, with web-centric retailers such as eBay and Amazon offering applications for the iPhone and iPod touch that rival or exceed their web-based counterparts in ease of use. The fact that these applications could be used on truly portable devices, allowing access to on-the-go shopping, provided an opportunity for television shopping networks to take a hard look at their own applications.

One such application was launched this week by HSN, Inc. (formerly the Home Shopping Network), a company that reaches more than 100 million households with its television network, and whose online sales have steadily been growing. In 2004, HSN's web-based sales accounted for 16% of total revenues; today it accounts for almost double that amount, with HSN seeing potential additional growth in the portable buying experience.

"Our customer is fashionable and discerning, and thrives on information, ideas and discovery," says HSN CEO, Mindy Grossman. "HSN strives to be the true multichannel experience, and this new iPhone app now allows our customer to take HSN with her, anytime, anywhere, and be that reliable, 'on-the-go' resource for lifestyle information she craves."

The HSN Shop app offers several interesting options, such as searching, buying options, and a unique "shake2shop" feature which, according to the company "will select a top-rated item for you and, at select times, may also produce a coupon." For those who missed an important product being featured, the application keeps track of the last 15 items aired.

The application really shines, though, for its streaming capabilities. It has a series of on-demand video clips of recent and popular products for sale, which can be streamed to the iPhone or second-generation iPod touch (an installation attempt will bring up a warning that says "this app requires a microphone" perhaps meaning that it needs built-in speakers).

Beyond just the on-demand content, though, the new application takes advantage of Apple's built-in HTTP streaming for the iPhone and iPod touch, as well as Apple's adaptive bitrate streaming technology.

"HSN and other media and entertainment companies are seeing tremendous value in switching to adaptive bitrate (ABR) technologies. A higher quality of experience, no buffering and a easier path to HD top the list of reasons to switch to ABR versus legacy streaming approaches," said Inlet's John Bishop, whose Spinnaker products are used to stream the HSN content as part of the new iPhone application. "The adaptive streaming capability is available now for the iPhone and is being used in high profile events such last weekend’s PGA Championship and for ongoing events like Major League Baseball's season."

The live video stream can be viewed via a WiFi connection, in keeping with other video streaming applications on the iPhone that limit the stream throughput across AT&T's EDGE and 3G networks.

I asked Bishop about Apple's ABR capabilities, which were first shown at the company's Worldwide Developer's Conference (WWDC) a few months ago. At the time, Inlet was also demonstrating its ABR segmenter for the iPhone and Apple's upcoming operating system, OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard.

"The segmenter is doing the http encapsulation," said Bishop, noting that Inlet's segmenter works for Apple's ABR, "and then any HTTP server will work to serve up the adaptive content. Snow Leopard will provide a desktop version of the QuickTime player with adaptive capability but, at this time, no plans have been announced for getting the new QT time to the PC. For this reason, HSN currently uses our Spinnaker systems for two formats: Silverlight to reach desktops client (both PC and Mac) with an adaptive experience and Apple HTTP delivery for reach to the mobile community."

The HSN Shop App is free and currently available on the iTunes App store.

For more on live streaming to the iPhone, see "iPhones Serving Live TV to Go.")

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