How long can content region-locking last?

One of the questions I’ve pondered a lot recently is the topic of content region-locking. I’m mostly talking about the practice of TV/film rights owners reselling their content to different local providers across the world, with each local provider only having license to distribute the content in their local territory. Examples of this are the region codes in DVDs (and in VHS previously), and of course different TV networks across the world showing the same show to their local audience. This has been a great demonstration of price discrimination in action, and has generally helped rights owners maximize their revenue/profit.

In the analog, or rather, pre-streaming world, there were attempts to arbitrage the system, with varying degrees of success. Pirated satellite TV has been around for ages, especially in emerging markets such as many parts of Asia. And of course the whole pirated DVD industry, which was quite dominant in countries such as China – as evidenced by DVD hardware manufacturers having full region unlock as a must-have feature – if your brand of DVD players can only play DVDs coded for the Chinese market, you might as well not go into business. In mature markets, it usually wasn’t worth the effort for the average person to try to steal satellite TV; although western visitors touring China usually tried to take full advantage of the local DVD prices, knowing that they were buying pirated copies of the whole box-set of Lost (or some other long-running series).

In the Netflix/Hulu world, where rights owners are hesitantly putting their content online, the situation suddenly gets very complex. Rights owners, used to thinking of the virtues of region-locking, are rightfully reluctant to give any one streaming provider (say, Youtube) worldwide rights to their highly valued content. This is why Netflix has to expand one country at a time, while they carefully negotiate their rights; this is also why you can only watch Hulu from the US.

However, in the online / streaming world, the hoops required to jump through to pretend to be a visitor from the US (and therefore acquire the content on Netflix/Hulu) is dramatically lower vs. the offline / physical world (where you literally had to buy a plane ticket to go to China to enjoy the low cost of content). And service providers such as Netflix and Hulu thereby have a real issue of enforcing their rights management vs. harming the user experience of the primary users they are trying to serve. The monthly cost of getting a VPN that offers a US IP address is usually less than $10 – unless Hollywood can get regulators to regulate VPNs, it is hard to see how they can avoid a continued in-flood of global traffic to Hulu (as more content is put online, the value of VPNs will rise further, and more people will adopt VPNs), which undermines the entire premise of region-locking.

What’s even worse than global traffic flooding to Hulu is the fact that there are more and more content being put online legally outside the US. As US TV series have caught on in China (in a big way) in the past 5-10 years, the leading Chinese video sites are coming to Hollywood to acquire content. On sites such as Youku and Sohu, top programming from AMC such as The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Mad Men are all legally available (usually in a few hours after they air in the US) to users from a Chinese IP address, all free of charge. There will certainly be entrepreneurial efforts in the US to arbitrage this discrepancy – after all, why should you buy/rent these shows from iTunes when you can access them from Chinese providers with a free Chrome extension(search “unblock youku”) or a Chinese IP VPN?

This certainly begs the question – is it legal to get a VPN to enjoy content that was licensed to a certain region? I am not a legal expert, but even I can see that this easily crosses into net neutrality territory and is a legal mess for rights owners to try to enforce. Furthermore, there are so many legitimate uses of VPN tech (prime example – bypass censorship) that it seems unfathomable that VPN providers would comply to limit/monitor/block VPN traffic when it comes to video. And while services such as Hulu can be pressured to improve their tech to try to block VPN IPs (is that legal?), or add more screening measures (e.g. you must create an account with a US credit card, or show you are living in the US via a utility bill statement), all these would certainly hurt the user experience – after all, I’m just trying to watch some TV, why do you need my identity?

At the end of the day – getting a US VPN to watch Hulu is a lot better than going to to download the same show. At least in the first case Hulu generated ad revenue from the visitor, which rights owners should get a % share of. The question is how mainstream such activities can get, and how fast – if an entrepreneurial VPN provider tries to make a marketing push by highlighting the rich content available in overseas markets, will rights owners be able to effectively respond?

What if Apple launched a TV?

First off, a hat tip to the Apple Finance Board, which if you don’t know already, is home to the best Apple analysts, people whose forecasts routinely beat Wall Street “professional” analysts. A thread on that forum inspired me to think about this topic over the past few days.

The original topic, simply put, is what’s next for Apple? What’s the next product category for Apple that can generate >$10bn revenue a year (like the iPad will easily do this year)? Many people would suggest TVs as a potential category. The living room is at the heart of the digital convergence, and many vendors from different product categories are vying for control of the “smart living room” – TV manufacturers (Sony’s Google TV, Vizio’s Internet TV etc.), cable operators (their set top boxes), game console makers, Internet streaming device vendors (Roku, Boxee, Apple TV), and the niche HTPC makers etc.

Google made big waves last year with Google TV, however their high-profile efforts quickly hit a wall. Of all the current offerings, I think Microsoft is best positioned with its Xbox 360 + Kinect. The Xbox360 already supports many of the features that Google TV boosts, such as Netflix, Facebook and Twitter (the latter two not necessarily that useful, but Netflix is a killer app), and furthermore it has an entrenched install base. The value-add of another box, which offers some overlapping features, is not strong; and from a user experience perspective, adds more complexity for the consumer – another device to hook up to the TV, more cables to sort out etc.

Under such competitive dynamics, it is arguable that to make a big play in the living room, the TV itself is the most strategically valuable product to launch. The TV is the center piece of the living room and the only piece that cannot be displaced (VHS recorders came and left, DVD players came and will leave soon etc.). It is usually the first remote you reach for and the first device you turn on (although in the US it has been hijacked by the cable set top box). The TV offers a strategic point of control on the whole living room – to access your console, your DVD player or your cable, you need the TV remote. Launching a successful smart TV gains you control of the entire living room, and make all other devices your servant.

Strategy-talk aside, what should the features / benefits be for this “real” Apple TV?

  • At the minimum, it should be an iOS-powered device and supports apps. This gives the product great extensibility in terms of function, and killer apps such as Netflix / Youtube should be available (or even preloaded) at launch.
  • In terms of hardware,
    • Built in DVD / Bluray drive, opening on the side (just like the iMac)
    • If feasible, built in cable tuner so consumers can throw away their set top boxes – this is both about strategic control and simplifying the user experience (getting rid of the cable remote)
    • Large storage to record programs / store apps, photos etc.
    • Wi-fi connectivity
    • lots of USB / HDMI slots for connectivity to other devices
    • Optional components could be card readers etc. (similar to iMacs)
    • And obviously a large shiny LCD…
  • In terms of UI,
    • It should support great customization in terms of managing screen real estate. Users should be able to have multiple apps and channels open in a wide range of display setups
    • It can have some simple remote, but users should be able to control it via whatever iOS or Mac device (similar to how you can control you comcast cable using the iPad)
  • In terms of fancy / advanced features,
    • TV streaming to other iOS / Mac devices – iOS / Mac devices can open a “TV” app and use the device just like a regular TV screen
    • Interaction among iOS/Mac devices – you can send whatever app you’re displaying on your iPad onto the TV, and vice versa. This leads to interesting use cases like taking whatever channel / show you’re watching on the TV onto your iPad, and carrying your iPad into the kitchen or other rooms and keep watching
  • Gaming, which may be where the real value add is (disrupt the console business)
    • TV also functions as a capable iOS gaming device (have to evaluate the costs associated)
    • Again, interesting interaction use cases with other iOS devices – use your iPhone / iPod Touch / iPad as the controller; when playing multiplayer games, say Scrabble, the TV serves as the common display while each player sees player specific info (in this case, their letters) on their smaller iOS screen

Obviously I have not evaluated feasibility (would it be prohibitively expensive? How much software development is needed?), but I’d say the above features are not too far-fetched. The really big question, or missing piece, is if and how this TV disrupts the current content value chain (that’s where Google TV stumbled). Figuring out the content piece is the key to unlocking value; the product I listed here is not disruptive in this regard.

I would love to hear any thoughts and feedback.