TiVo? That's so last year. There's a new cool device for the TV: the Slingbox, which lets you watch your home television when you're halfway around the world. Don't worry if that business trip to Australia has inconveniently come just when Man U is playing Arsenal in London. With a Slingbox in the living room and an Internet-connected laptop or 3G mobile phone on the road, you can follow every live strike by Thierry Henry and Wayne Rooney just as if you were slumped into your favorite comfy chair in Highbury.
Not that it's perfect: if you're in Sydney, you might have to start watching at 1 a.m. Like personal video recorders (pvrs) and the growing fascination with television inside mobile phones, the Slingbox is part of a wave of technology that consumers may well want, but could wreak havoc with traditional television companies who've paid millions for the broadcast rights to certain events and shows. But it's impossible to deny the beauty of the silvery, 27-cm-long, Chunky-bar-shaped plastic device. "The Slingbox gives you exactly what your home TV experience is when you're on the road," says Sling Media's 38-year-old chief executive Blake Krikorian, who co-invented the gadget with his younger brother Jason so that they could watch San Francisco Giants baseball games while globetrotting. "It frees the TV from the confines of the living room."
Krikorian put the device to the test in Cannes a few weeks ago. Attending an annual television conference called MipTV, where producers, broadcasters and Internet companies buy and sell programming, he stayed up until dawn in his hotel to watch his beloved ucla Bruins lose the ncaa basketball title game to the Florida Gators on an IBM T43 ThinkPad laptop. A couple of hours later he sheepishly dragged himself to the keynote podium and sarcastically declared: "Today's one of the first days I'm really upset at the Slingbox.'' He hasn't had much time for disappointment. Krikorian had flown to Cannes to announce that Sling Media will soon start selling Slingbox in Europe and Asia; he told Time that his product will hit high-street retailers in Britain and other European and Asian countries in May (even if his company won't yet reveal prices or which chains will carry it).
According to Krikorian, the company has sold over 100,000 Slingboxes in the U.S. since introducing it there less than a year ago, with the price at around $200. While those numbers don't get into iPod or TiVo territory, Krikorian argues that Slingbox is outpacing most debut devices. "We're actually on a pretty torrid pace for a new technology,'' he says.
It's helped that critics have raved about his gizmo. "Once you have it, you'll wonder why everyone else doesn't," gushed msnbc in March. True, the setup can be tricky users have to tie the device into an Internet router as well as into a TV set-top box, and they have to download software. And Slingbox makes the rights to programming trickier still. Paul Whitehead, head of business development for British commercial TV network Channel 4, notes that when the network acquires rights to air a program such as The Sopranos, the agreement often covers Britain only. So is a Channel 4 viewer legally entitled to beam a Sopranos episode to another country? Studios that supply Channel 4 "absolutely are concerned" that devices like Slingbox could extend broadcasts beyond the permitted territory, Whitehead says, noting that "this is going to lead to interesting discussions with the studios."
That's putting it mildly the entire structure of commercial television rests on geographically specific copyrights. "The implications from a public-policy standpoint are enormous," says Dennis Wharton, senior vice president of communications for the Washington-based National Association of Broadcasters. In the U.S. in late March, the House Commerce Committee held inconclusive hearings on the copyright implications of devices like Slingbox and pvrs, which let people skip commercials and store shows on hard drives for future use.
Krikorian insists that Slingbox does not undermine rights because it simply extends the range within which an individual can watch programs sent to his home, in the same way that making a video recording for personal use does. Slingbox specifically avoids the P2P (peer-to-peer) reach associated with music-sharing services like Napster, which got in trouble by allowing users to share material illegally. "We allow only one stream at a time,'' he notes. That is, a Slingbox routes a TV signal only to its owner. Users cannot configure it to spread the signal out to other recipients. Still, the temptations are strong. At MipTV in Cannes, Krikorian was mobbed with interest after showing off the device. A French commercial broadcaster, to take one example, was asking to co-brand the Slingbox in France. The more Slingbox broadcasts that are zapped around the globe, the harder it will be to make sure that they are used legally.
And gray areas abound. "Where I could see difficulty is if that 'one-to-one' connection is to a pub full of people watching a sporting event,'' says Simon Fell, controller of emerging technologies for British commercial broadcaster itv. On the other hand, Fell notes that Sling technology could "effectively mean that more eyeballs see the program, which is good, and gives advertisers more opportunity." Attorney Dan Harrington, a partner with the London sports and business rights firm Couchman Harrington Associates, believes that broadcasters and rights holders will iron out the difficulties. "As with any new technology, the market might initially be shocked before the business models adapt to find the solutions we need to deal with the changes," says Harrington.
Indeed, Krikorian hopes that rights owners and broadcasters will soon strike deals with Sling Media that increase the chance that their audience will both tune in and interact. "There's been lots of saber rattling," says Krikorian. "But when you completely dive into this, you realize we're helping the industry.''
If nothing else, Sling has media titans in its corner. Its financial backers include moguls John Malone and Charlie Ergen, who respectively run Liberty Media Corp., the Colorado-based international media and cable company with cable operations around Europe, and Echostar, the second largest satellite-television provider in the U.S. Along with Goldman Sachs, they led a $46.6 million Sling investment in January. Doubtless, competition will come. Sony is marketing a box it calls LocationFree. Other Sling rivals include Emeryville, California-based Orb and Houston-based SnapStream. Set-top boxmakers such as Scientific Atlanta, recently acquired by Cisco, are incorporating place-shifting into their devices.
But is there really a mass market of people who need real-time TV broadcasts on the road? The underlying technology is already with us: there are over 200 million broadband subscriptions in the world, growing to over 400 million by 2010, according to market research firm In-Stat. And Informa Telecoms & Media says there are over 2 billion mobile-phone subscribers, growing to 3 billion by 2008, many of whom will have high-speed service. Each of those are candidates to haul their home TVs around on their laptop and phone screens without having to buy pricey video packages from mobile-phone carriers. Still, detractors question whether there is much of a demand for the Slingbox beyond sports nuts. "The Slingbox will spread, but only among a die-hard technology enthusiast group that loves electronics," says Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Forrester Research.
Krikorian, of course, has almost a missionary's sense that his product will succeed. "We're tripling the number of TVs on the planet," he says, exaggerating for effect. But of all the hyped technology predictions of recent years, the most believable are usually the ones that allow people to do more easily or better things they already want to do like shopping, talking, getting information. Technology that helps viewers get more out of their television is bound to do well.