Fred Wilson finds himself on two sides of the fundamental issue of our time: the user’s right to access data the way he or she wants to. On one side, that of the user, Wilson is an investor and board member of Boxee, a startup that translates web pages into a form more easily consumable on a TV screen. One site in particular, Hulu, just shut Boxee down at the insistence of the content providers for material on the NBC and Fox-owned site.
Boxee’s popular because it leverages Hulu’s free access to mainstream content in an on-demand solution. It’s the long-awaited rollup of TV or the computer, where on demand entertainment can be watched on the big screen under computer control. The studios don’t want us getting used to that methodology, especially not when it breaks out of the tightly controlled box where you can watch for free (ad-supported) or pay (DVD and Pay per view on demand) but not free on demand on the big screen.
The main reason for this is the one users mentioned in the Hulu comments, namely that the Boxee/Hulu combination encouraged users to quit using satellite and cable services and their DVRs and time shift off the Net instead. It’s a variant of the reason Apple doesn’t open up AppleTV to direct recording and playing of studio content so as to protect the pay to download iTunes service.
Fred suggests users don’t understand the distinction between watching via Safari or Firefox and via Boxee. That may be true, but we certainly do understand it probably has to do with the studios protecting the networks and the set manufacturers just like they did when they all stonewalled DVRs until enough competition developed between satellite and cable to trigger the dissemination of free recorders to encourage switching.
The other side of the Where’s My Data Home version game that Fred is involved in is Twitter, where he has a similar investment and board role. Twitter has spent much of the last month or so rate limiting its third party developers, degrading their user experiences and in some cases, killing the add-ons outright. While it’s hard to tell whether the blame lies with outages like this week’s slowdown of Twitter messages moving to FriendFeed (near real time to 30 minutes at last word), the net effect is to raise questions about the viability of the satellite service.
FriendFeed aggregates many different activity and news streams, but Twitter produces the lion’s share of traffic to and from the smaller site. None of this would be noteworthy except that Twitter has been anything but open about how and with whom they will share “their” data. The history of Twitter’s removal of Track, acquisition of Summize search services, and recent surfacing of packaged search terms suggests the long awaited business model is tied to controlling the data pipeline, much as the studios control theirs in the case of Hulu, Boxee, iTunes et al.
Wilson commends Hulu for being open and transparent and “allowing the community to discuss and debate this decision out in the open” on the Hulu blog. He’s right about Boxee and should take his own advice to heart and encourage Twitter to do the same about user’s concerns on its site. “Open and transparent” is the first step forward to a time when users can use third party sites such as FriendFeed without fear that they will be cut off from living in the new converged media reality. Right now even Facebook looks more responsive to user concerns than Twitter.