NBC's Jeff Zucker vs. Apple's Steve Jobs: Round Two

Categories: Internet TV,New TV Technology

Written By

April 6th, 2008

The Office on the iPhone

Perhaps Jeff Zucker had Steve Jobs right all along. I’m coming around to at least wondering about it. Last fall, when NBC took its video properties off of iTunes, allegedly because it wanted to charge more for TV shows then a $1.99 and Apple said no, I railed on Zucker.

I’m now considering being a flip-flopping backtracker. I hate flip-flopping, but there are two data points that have me thinking about it.

1. NBC is still selling digital downloads for $1.99. It didn’t raise the price. I wonder if they were just looking to bail out by any means necessary. What’s more, via Hulu.com, there’s more stuff available free than ever. Including last Friday’s season four premier of Battlestar Galactica. As well as all fourteen episodes (including the Pilot) of Firefly.  2. Steve Jobs recently said Apple wouldn’t be supporting Adobe’s Flash on the iPhone.

Back in early July when I’d already had my hands on my iPhone for a few days and already loved it enough to marry it were such a thing legal, I used to read venture capitalist Fred Wilson rail on Apple and it’s “closed” system. The way he was writing about it, you’d think it was a Mac lover writing about Microsoft circa 1996, but he was writing about Apple.

My response to that was pretty much “Bah!” I figured, the thing has a web browser, that’s as open as it needs to be. My most trusted source for all things technology, Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal was led to believe Flash was coming, perhaps as soon as October (that date came and went). I figured, once the thing has Flash, it’s as open as it needs to be as far as I’m concerned.

Then I finally got around to reading Jobs claiming that they wouldn’t be supporting Flash on the iPhone because it’s too slow. Oh please, that’s poppycock. I’ve used Flash streaming on Windows and a low-end MacBook. It’s plenty fast enough.

I’ll give Apple and YouTube (Google) credit, they figured out how to stream H.264 over a WiFi connection very nicely. I can stream very high quality YouTube videos on my iPhone via a WiFi connection and they look great. There’s only one problem with this, and it’s not a small one. For all practical purposes, nothing I want to watch is on YouTube.

What I do want to watch, what I can watch from any computer (Apple, Windows, and if I had one, Linux too, I imagine) with a web browser is all the stuff that is stored on my media server, including things from one of my DVRs, and everything that’s on my television via SlingBox (or Orb.com). Every computer with a web browser, that is, except my iPhone.

I’m pretty bummed out about it. About as bummed as I’d be if I’d bought the greatest, biggest, widest flatscreen High Definition television in the world, but was only able to tune in the CW and PBS.

So much for liberating my media completely. I know people were enthused because Apple is creating an SDK for the iPhone (that’s techie jargon for providing a framework for allowing software developers to create applications for the phone), and so Adobe was hopeful that despite Apple not supporting Flash, it could write support for it anyway. But from what I read, the SDK won’t play nice with Flash, so that’s not looking good either.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but it’s important here too, because the battle lines are starting to be drawn. There’s no easy way for me to get NBC shows on my iPhone. I can convert stuff I recorded off my DVR, but that’s not a 10 second process. I can’t buy the NBC shows off iTunes, and even if I have a great WiFi connection, I can’t go to Hulu.com and just watch on my iPhone.

I can’t watch my cable (live, or what’s on my DVR) as I can on my laptop. I loved the notion of having a television in my pocket and not having to pay for the content I have in fact already paid for! OK, so yeah, besides 30 Rock and The Office there’s probably not much from NBC I’d want to watch, but hello – NBC owns the distribution of Battlestar Galactica too. The iPhone has no love for Battlestar Galactica. Sadly, the absolute easiest way to get BSG on my iPhone is to download a torrent that’s already been optimized for the small screen.

And the convenience is a bummer too. If I’m not home at 2:30pm and I have a WiFi connection and some time to kill, I’d like to be able to connect up to my television at home and watch ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption. Steve Jobs and Apple won’t let me do that. Thanks a lot. It’s wonderful that ESPN now makes PTI (and for that matter Around the Horn and Jim Rome Is Burning) available via ESPN.COM now, but, you guessed it – that’s in Flash too. Just like Hulu. Every episode of LOST is up on ABC.com, in HD no less. Also in Flash. Want to watch House via FOX.com or Huly on your iPhone? Nope. No can do.

Jobs is a complete control freak and it’s a double-edged sword. As I’ve written elsewhere, one edge of the sword worked out very nicely. If he hadn’t been an insane control freak there’s no way he could have built a phone with a full-fledged operating system in it. None of the carriers would want to do that – give him that kind of control, which is why Apple cut the exclusive deal with AT&T – so it could have control. The result is a very, very, very fine piece of technology that without being such a control freak couldn’t likely have been built.

But when you want to control what I access and how – when you want to control “the Internet” by saying “our iPhone version of the Internet will not support Flash, even though it’s everywhere on the Internet – suck it up and watch YouTube or buy the content on iTunes,” that’s not a very consumer friendly device.

It took Jobs many years to come out against DMA DRM more jargon for all the BS copy protection the music labels try to stick on songs to make it a pain to steal, that also makes it a pain for you to do whatever you want with music you’ve already paid for. Jobs now says DMA DRM isn’t a very consumer friendly thing. Now, when it comes to accessing my own media, and the Internet – neither is the iPhone.

While iTunes recently surpassed WalMart as the number one distributor of music (not just number one online, number one overall!) the portion of TV and Movie revenue coming off of iTunes is but a pittance.  That's probably more of a bandwidth issue than a business issue at this point.

I’m hopeful that all the Flash talk from Jobs is just some shrewd negotiating strategy. If not, as he finally did with DMADRM, I hope he comes to his senses soon.  Yes, I know portable video on the iPhone and iPod Touch isn't a big deal right now, and that you can access any Flash video just fine from any Apple computer that's not an iPhone or iPod Touch,  but I'm looking forward several years. 

Originally I thought NBC and Zucker were just cutting off its nose to spite its face by bailing on iTunes. Now I’m not so sure. Now I wish FOX, ABC and CBS (and the CW) would join forces with NBC and bail as well. Collusion and solidarity wouldn’t bother me one little bit in this instance.  

 
  • Jason

    Good article, I think you might be on to something here. I sure would want to have access to Hulu and the networks’ own video sites if I had an iPhone or iPod Touch. At least I can record iPod-ready videos on my computer! Side note: I’m guessing you meant DRM, not DMA.

  • Jason

    Good article, I think you might be on to something here. I sure would want to have access to Hulu and the networks' own video sites if I had an iPhone or iPod Touch. At least I can record iPod-ready videos on my computer! Side note: I'm guessing you meant DRM, not DMA.

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Robert Seidman

    D’oh! Thanks Jason! I have Nielsen jargon (DMA= Designated Market Areas) too much on the brain these days I guess. I did indeed mean DRM (Digital Rights Management).

    My setup for DVR on my media server is on a windows machine. I haven’t looked at using alternative software/hardware to simplify my life, but perhaps I should.

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Robert Seidman

    D'oh! Thanks Jason! I have Nielsen jargon (DMA= Designated Market Areas) too much on the brain these days I guess. I did indeed mean DRM (Digital Rights Management).

    My setup for DVR on my media server is on a windows machine. I haven't looked at using alternative software/hardware to simplify my life, but perhaps I should.

  • Julia

    I’m sure you know this, but it may be a relevant detail. Jobs tends to specifically deny things within a few months of them being announced. There was a very interested Wired article this month about the evil genius of Apple with specific examples of this.

  • Julia

    I'm sure you know this, but it may be a relevant detail. Jobs tends to specifically deny things within a few months of them being announced. There was a very interested Wired article this month about the evil genius of Apple with specific examples of this.

  • Julia

    Interesting, not interested. Must start sleeping at 4am.

  • Julia

    Interesting, not interested. Must start sleeping at 4am.

  • Arn

    Flash is a proprietary format. If it becomes the dominant media delivery vehicle on the web we all lose.

    Apple has been very smart using their large market share to steer the world towards good open standards in media (mp3, AAC, mp4/h264)

    This is also true of site navigation and web apps. If Flash becomes readily accepted as a part of mobile-focused web sites and web apps, as it has on the desktop, the future is owned by a single corporation (Adobe).

    Apple has an interest in steering the world away from Windows-type monopoly in this new mobile area. With luck it will rub off on the desktop world too.

    In a world where we use standards-based web apps and media, Apple can only win market share. They have consistently made the better widget.

  • Arn

    Flash is a proprietary format. If it becomes the dominant media delivery vehicle on the web we all lose.

    Apple has been very smart using their large market share to steer the world towards good open standards in media (mp3, AAC, mp4/h264)

    This is also true of site navigation and web apps. If Flash becomes readily accepted as a part of mobile-focused web sites and web apps, as it has on the desktop, the future is owned by a single corporation (Adobe).

    Apple has an interest in steering the world away from Windows-type monopoly in this new mobile area. With luck it will rub off on the desktop world too.

    In a world where we use standards-based web apps and media, Apple can only win market share. They have consistently made the better widget.

  • Arn

    One more thing.

    Look at Apple’s record on DRM.
    The company that brought you the tagline “Rip. Mix. Burn.”
    They know that 98% of the music on your ipod comes from CDs and not from iTunes.

    They want to sell you high-margin hardware and have no real interest in owning or controlling media sales. The iTunes Store’s success (and therefore influence) is a byproduct of not wanting to get blocked out of the market by another big player (Microsoft, Sony). They would sell DRM free music in a heartbeat if they were allowed by the record labels. Apple knows that if your media is in an open format (like CDs or MP3) you will choose to buy the better product.

    Interestingly, in a world where the applications we use are increasingly open (web apps vs. Windows apps), look what’s happening to Mac sales.

  • Arn

    One more thing.

    Look at Apple's record on DRM.
    The company that brought you the tagline “Rip. Mix. Burn.”
    They know that 98% of the music on your ipod comes from CDs and not from iTunes.

    They want to sell you high-margin hardware and have no real interest in owning or controlling media sales. The iTunes Store's success (and therefore influence) is a byproduct of not wanting to get blocked out of the market by another big player (Microsoft, Sony). They would sell DRM free music in a heartbeat if they were allowed by the record labels. Apple knows that if your media is in an open format (like CDs or MP3) you will choose to buy the better product.

    Interestingly, in a world where the applications we use are increasingly open (web apps vs. Windows apps), look what's happening to Mac sales.

  • Dan

    You keep talking about Jobs “coming to his senses” and so on. But this is a technology problem. When Jobs says that Flash is “too slow”, how exactly are you contradicting him by saying you can run Flash on Windows and a MacBook? The iPhone has a much slower processor and less memory than a laptop. So yeah, they could make it sort of half-work in a Microsoft Windows-Mobile sort of way (if you know what I mean – and if you don’t, trust me you’re better off). In other words, you might as well complain that the iPhone doesn’t fly you to the moon and back. It’s very endearing that you really really want to watch Battlestar Galactica on your iPhone, but get your technology straight next time. The control-freakiness is not a double edged sword at all, and has worked out great (or in any case as well as could be managed given existing technology) for anybody whose expectations are actually grounded in reality. In fact what you call control freakiness I would simply call “very rigorous quality control”. Makes you wish there were more tech CEOs like Jobs when you think of it that way, doesn’t it?

  • Dan

    You keep talking about Jobs “coming to his senses” and so on. But this is a technology problem. When Jobs says that Flash is “too slow”, how exactly are you contradicting him by saying you can run Flash on Windows and a MacBook? The iPhone has a much slower processor and less memory than a laptop. So yeah, they could make it sort of half-work in a Microsoft Windows-Mobile sort of way (if you know what I mean – and if you don't, trust me you're better off). In other words, you might as well complain that the iPhone doesn't fly you to the moon and back. It's very endearing that you really really want to watch Battlestar Galactica on your iPhone, but get your technology straight next time. The control-freakiness is not a double edged sword at all, and has worked out great (or in any case as well as could be managed given existing technology) for anybody whose expectations are actually grounded in reality. In fact what you call control freakiness I would simply call “very rigorous quality control”. Makes you wish there were more tech CEOs like Jobs when you think of it that way, doesn't it?

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Robert Seidman

    Dan, I am contradicting Jobs for this reason: I have an iPhone, I use computers, I have an understanding of how things work.

    The iPhone promised the “full Internet Web experience” it didn’t deliver it. It’s not like flying to the moon and back, it’s like including a full-fledged web experience, which they said they would, only they didn’t.

    Jobs seems fine that the SMS application on the iPhone is very slow. I’ll offer up that more people care about text messaging than watching BSG on their iPhones, but speed was not a major concern for them with the SMS application.

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Robert Seidman

    Dan, I am contradicting Jobs for this reason: I have an iPhone, I use computers, I have an understanding of how things work.

    The iPhone promised the “full Internet Web experience” it didn't deliver it. It's not like flying to the moon and back, it's like including a full-fledged web experience, which they said they would, only they didn't.

    Jobs seems fine that the SMS application on the iPhone is very slow. I'll offer up that more people care about text messaging than watching BSG on their iPhones, but speed was not a major concern for them with the SMS application.

  • joeYYY

    Here is good article explaining the issues with Flash on the iPhone.

    http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/08/03/05/s

    Flash is used across the internet but that still doesn't make it a standard. It is a proprietary format that is fully controlled by Adobe.

  • joeYYY

    Here is good article explaining the issues with Flash on the iPhone.

    http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/08/03/05/steve_jobs_pans_flash_on_the_iphone.html

    Flash is used across the internet but that still doesn’t make it a standard. It is a proprietary format that is fully controlled by Adobe.

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