Lots of talk about Hulu, the video portal from NBC and News Corp. that is celebrating its first birthday. Brian Stelter has a great piece in the New York Times about the site, and how it has succeeded in part by not plastering everything with ads (a lesson I sincerely hope others take to heart as well). I have to admit that like Mike Arrington at TechCrunch, I was — how can I put this delicately — somewhat skeptical of Hulu’s chances. Not surprising really, given how the major networks (yes, I’m looking at you, CBS) had screwed things up royally with online video.
And yet, Hulu arrived and it didn’t suck. It has a nice interface, it shows pretty good quality video in a nice wide player, and it lets you pause and even embed video. It’s not available outside the United States, of course, but there are ways of getting around those restrictions if you really want to. There’s lots of great content on Hulu too, including some of my favourite old TV shows like Time Tunnel and I Dream of Jeannie and whatnot. So all in all, it’s done pretty well for itself — and it has the numbers to prove it (although not enough for Liz Gannes at NewTeeVee).
At the same time though, I must admit that something bothers me about Hulu (and not just that as a Canadian, I have to jump through a bunch of hoops just to watch something on it). Andrew Baron, the founder of the online video show Rocketboom, came close to the mark with some comments he made on a Yahoo group recently in a discussion about Revision3 and some of the cutbacks they’ve made in new shows. I think what bothers me about Hulu is the same thing that bothered me about Joost: namely, the fact that all the content is… well, it’s just TV on the Web. Where’s the fun in that?
I mean, I like being able to watch or embed that hilarious episode of Saturday Night Live — which seems to have turned off the geo-blocking, since I’ve embedded one in this post — or a clip from South Park, or whatever. But apart from the ability to embed it somewhere else (which I admit is a huge step for a network to take with its content) there’s very little you can do with it. And there’s nothing else but content from major networks and studios — no related content from elsewhere, no uploading allowed, no way to get anything *into* Hulu at all. Maybe I’m just hard to please.
According to a report in Fortune, the file-sharing network LimeWire has signed a deal with Comedy Central that will make it easy for users of the peer-to-peer application to find and buy legal versions of comedy videos from Lewis Black, Mitch Hedberg (who appears in the video embedded here, a clip from the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal) and others. LimeWire opened a download store in March, but until now it has consisted primarily of content from small record labels and independent artists. The addition of licensed content will make for an interesting test: Are LimeWire users willing to pay for content that they like, provided it’s easy to do so? Or are they dedicated to pirating it no matter what?
Jack Vaughn, head of Comedy Central Records, said that the network doesn’t like piracy, but that it is looking for ways to expose its content to as many new audiences as possible, and LimeWire fits that bill: “We looked at the Lime Wire Store, and we said, ‘Are they going to pay? Are they going to pay on time, and are they going to expose our artists to a new audience?’ The answer was yes.” Whether this attitude shift will help the P2P network in its ongoing fight with music labels over the copyright-infringing content on the system remains to be seen. In an unrelated move, the co-founder of the Kazaa P2P network is also trying to help such networks go legit.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter heard about this already, but there’s an interesting story behind the “sequel” video to that famous Wassup commercial that Budweiser came out with eight years ago. Much like BusinessWeek marketing writer Burt Helm, I wondered how the video had come together, and how it came to be a partisan election message for Obama rather than a Budweiser commercial. Unlike me, however, Burt Helm looked into it and discovered that director Charles Stone III (who also directed the movie Drumline) retained the rights to the concept, which he licensed to Budweiser for the original commercial. He made the sequel with some friends and colleagues from the movie business and $6500 of his own money, and in just 4 days it has been seen by 2.4 million people.
So Microsoft seems to have finally woken up and decided to get serious about the Web — or at least semi-serious — by rolling out a cloud-computing platform called Azure and announcing the imminent arrival of Web-ized versions of its Office applications (my favourite response to these announcements came in a Twitter message from Sarah Perez of Read/Write Web). Obviously, the Web Office news is a shot across the bow of Google and its Google Docs — Microsoft is even using mostly Ajax just like Google, instead of its Flash-style Silverlight technology. But who does the rollout of a Web Office hurt Google more, or does it hurt Microsoft itself?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I still think it’s worth asking. No doubt many users of Google Docs will shift to Microsoft’s version, in part because it will make integration with their existing corporate systems easier, or because their employers will make its use mandatory. Others may find that Microsoft’s Web apps offer better compatibility with regular Office programs (something that Google Docs still isn’t that good at, at least when it comes to advanced page layout and that sort of thing). But what about the competition between Microsoft’s Web Office and the real Office?
I would imagine that Microsoft is going to try its best to make Web Office just useful enough to entice people away from Google, but not nearly nice enough to tempt them to drop the regular installed version of Office. But no matter how hard it tries, there are likely to be small or medium-sized companies that decide it’s just as good to use the Web version as it is to pay $300 or whatever per seat to get an authorized copy of the desktop software. That’s going to be money right out of Microsoft’s pocket, since Office generates truckloads of cash for the software behemoth.
Maybe Microsoft will be able to manage the process so that it doesn’t cannibalize its Office franchise too much, or maybe it will err on the side of crippling the Web Office so that it doesn’t harm the installed software versions. But either way, that’s a tricky balance to strike.
Last year, a columnist for MediaPost asked which major newspaper would be the first to turn its back on print and try to create a future as an online-only publication, and now he has his answer: the Christian Science Monitor, a 100-year-old newspaper that has won seven Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, said today that it will no longer publish a daily print edition. The paper, which is financed by the Church of Christ Scientist but has won widespread acclaim for its reporting and commentary, is launching a weekly magazine but otherwise the print side will be shut down.
I confess that despite having spent the past couple of years watching U.S. newspapers caught in a death spiral, cutting costs and laying off staff only to see their advertising revenue continue to sink, the closure of the CS Monitor’s print edition came as a shock. It’s one thing to talk about what newspapers have to do to survive, how online is the future and so on, but it’s another thing to see a 100-year-old paper leap off a cliff like that.