Review: BitBop offers dream of great video on Android someday

Have I mentioned there are a dearth of options for watching TV shows and movies on Android devices? Yeah? Well, while we wait for the possible arrival of Netflix and Hulu Plus for Android, I’m just trying out a new offering called BitBop on my T-Mobile Nexus S.

It’s very early days yet but it has potential to be pretty good. The interface is snappy and simple and it’s the first widely available Android video service I know of that lets you download shows to your phone for viewing offline (you can also stream while online). Unfortunately, the content and pricing leave BitBop in the dust compared with the offerings on the iPhone from iTunes, Netflix and several others.

In a world of fragmentation, one of the first cool thing about BitBop is that works on lots of Android phones — 30 so far including many popular models like the Galaxy S, HTC Droid Incredible and my personal fave, the Nexus S. It also works on some Blackberries.

You can’t load the app through the Google Market, sadly. You have to check the “unknown sources” box in the applications section of your settings. But thanks to the Amazon appstore, we’ve already probably all done that by now. After you sign up on the web site and create an account (credit card required), BitBop send you a text message with a link to download the app. Install and you’re ready to go.

Once you fire the app up, there’s a simply interface for finding shows. Movies aren’t available yet. If you’re connected online via wifi or 3G, you can watch the shows streamed or download to your phone for later offline viewing. Here’s what the opening screen looks like:

But there are at least two huge problems with BitBop. First, as of right now on March 25, 2011, the content is incredibly spotty. There are 168 TV shows and 0 — that’s zero — movies available. Even for the TV shows listed, most have only one or two episodes available. Maybe that’s not even spotty, just crappy.

And the selection is bizarre. For The Office, the only episode available to watch is from February 24 and it says it will expire on April 15. I hope they add some more episodes by then! Other shows, like Sponge Bob Square Pants, don’t even have full episodes, just short snippets, snackable comedy bites, I guess. For example, you can watch 2 minutes of Betty White at Comedy Central’s roast of William Shatner (After saying hi to George Takei, she quips: “We all think Shatner’s nuts, but George take has actually seen them”).

The other downer is the price: $10 a month after an initial free 7-day trial. That’s more than an online subscription to Netflix with only one-billionth as much content (though you do get the download option that Netflix doesn’t offer) and hard to justify against Apple’s pay only when you watch pricing. It also appears that the $10 won’t even include movies, once they finally arrive. Movie rentals will be $1 to $5, according to the web site. The pricing seems way out of line.

So, we end where we started. TV and movie options on Android stink. But like Meg Ryan says in the movie You’ve Got Mail when asked if she’s fallen in love: No but there’s the dream of someone else.

Verizon’s stingy 4G Internet pricing and other downers of the week

I had a really busy week at work and I’m just catching up on some of the tech news of the week. None of the stories are positive developments for we the denizens of Internet nation, sadly.

Headline A that caught my attention was Verizon Wireless announcing pricing for its new super-fast, fourth-generation mobile broadband service. I’ve long been a customer of Verizon’s current 3G service, which is more dependable and widespread than the service I get either from AT&T (with my iPhone) or Sprint (with an Overdrive). But for 4G, Verizon has decided to go with data limits that make the service’s super-fast speeds practically useless. They are going to charge $50 a month for 5 gigabytes of data or $80 for 10 gigabytes. As a headline from PC Magazine noted, you can blow through your month’s data allocation in 32 minutes!

I’m slightly surprised by the news, since my 4G-capable Sprint Overdrive costs $59.99 a month for unlimited 4G downloads (though it carries a 5 gigabyte cap when it defaults down to 3G speeds). Supposedly one part of the appeal of mobile 4G networks was relief from overcrowding that hampered 3G networks and required all these onerous bandwidth caps in the first place.

Of course, the Journal’s spin was more upbeat, as they noted that the new 5 gigabyte cap was priced $10 a month less than the old Verizon 3G plans with the same data limits. But since the whole point of getting on a faster 4G plan is to download more, to me, the fact that the cap is the same is a killer. It reminds me of that line from the movie You’ve Got Mail that the purpose of a VCR is to record TV when you leave the house but the whole point of leaving the house is to skip out on watching TV. The reason to get a 4G connection is to download more data but the reason for Verizon’s stingy cap is to prevent you from downloading more.

Things became clearer when the paper explained some of the thinking behind the pricing.

Verizon Wireless is able to offer the five-gigabyte plan at a lower rate than its 3G plan because it costs less to deliver that wireless traffic on 4G, Chief Technology Officer Tony Melone said. But he expects most people to sign up for the high-capacity $80 plan because the higher speeds will lead to more usage.

I don’t know if they’re serious but the market for people who are willing to pay $80 a month for mobile Internet service can probably fit in the front pocket of Tinkerbell’s blouse. I mean, really. The fact that 4G is fast enough to replace wired home broadband connections for many people — like those millions sold by Verizon — might explain some of the pricing strategy.

Another downer this week came from broadband provider Level 3. The company just grabbed the contract to send Netflix customers streamed movies and TV shows. But Comcast, which is now the largest retail broadband provider, is demanding some mega-payments to allow Level 3 to send Netflix streams to Netflix customers who use Comcast.

The debate quickly descends into some pretty technical historical details of the connections among different kinds of Internet and broadband service providers. But suffice it to say that if Comcast can price Level 3’s Netflix customers away from NetFlix, they’ve gone a long way to protect their lucrative cable television franchise. Hmm, sensing a theme yet?

The back and forth prompted law professor Susan Crawford to cut through the crap and get to the point with some painfully pointy rhetorical questions.

The takeaway from today: No market forces are constraining Comcast – or any of the other major cable distributors, none of which compete with each other. How will consumers and innovation be protected from their machinations? The FCC is currently facing two defining moments in US telecommunications policy, and it’s unclear what the Commission is going to do in either case. Will the FCC act to relabel high-speed Internet transmission services, reversing the radical Bush-era deregulatory turn? Will the FCC block the Comcast/NBCU merger? Can we expect that anything will happen (at all) to ensure that local monopoly control over communications transport isn’t leveraged into adjacent markets for devices and content?

What will the legacy of the FCC be, as the looming cable monopoly stops looming and starts muscling levers into place?

Finally, whatever you think about Wikileaks and its controversial founder Julian Assange, the way big Internet companies have reacted scares some free speech and civil rights advocates. Dan Gillmor, writing for Slate, warns that online, the censors are scoring big wins. Internet hosting and address companies booted Wikileaks out so quickly and so cavalierly that Gillmor worries for the future when we all depend more and more on information stored in the “cloud.”

The WikiLeaks affair is highlighting the Internet’s soft underbelly: the intermediaries on which we all rely to store our information and make it available. We are learning, to our dismay, that we cannot trust them. Combine that with increasing government intervention, we’re also learning that the Internet is somewhat easier to censor than we’d assumed.

This should worry anyone who believes that we’re going to move our data and online lives into the fabled “cloud” — the diffused online array of hardware and services where, proponents say, we can do our online work, play and commerce without the need for storing data on our own personal computers. Trusting the cloud is becoming an act of faith, and it’s time to question that faith.

And that’s it for GravitationalPull dot net today. Hopefully, cheerier postings ahead.

Tivo already connects your TV to the web content you want

TivoHD modelWe’ve been happy Tivo subscribers for almost two years now. We started with a Toshiba RS-TX20 model that also has an integrated DVD player/recorder. That was an awesome combination (just one remote!) but its been discontinued. Not just the model — the whole concept. So when we added a high-definition television set and Verizon’s FIOS service last year, we bought a true Tivo box, the Series3 HD.

The Series3 can record high-def shows and connect to the Internet to do all the brilliant Tivo scheduling tricks. But it also requires that we have a separate DVD player and its accompanying remote to watch movies on disk. Big drag. Plus we lost the ability to transfer shows to DVD, which might make some TV execs somewhere happy but seems like a big downer to us ordinary consumers who just want an easy way to let our kids watch their favorite shows while on vacation in hotel rooms and so on.

Lately, the news has been full of the latest boxes and schemes to better connect your television to whatever source of programming turns you on. Downloads and streaming and cable, oh my. There’s the new Netflix $99 box designed by Roku that lets you choose movies on your PC that are then streamed over the Internet to your TV via the box. Gizmodo loves it, but others, like Kristen Nicole on Mashable, less so. Then Sony announced it would be adding a cable industry developed technology currently going by the tag “Tru2way” to some of its high-end TVs obviating the need for a set-top box even for pay-per-view and on-demand cable programming. NewTeeVee is pretty optimistic though I found it — and almost all the media coverage, really — lacking the history and context of this technology and rather naive about the cable industry’s aims here. But that’s a subject for another post. Plus Apple rolled out its HBO deal for downloadable if overpriced shows and Jeff Bezos said Amazon would get into the live streaming biz soon.

At first, all this news had me depressed that so many competing players were battling over all these little pieces of the big picture. The forest and the trees and all that. After all, I just want to watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it on the TV I like to watch. And just let me use a fairly simple and solitary remote control, please. But as I sat down to write some kind of screed against the industry, I started to mentally tally how we’d used our Tivos just in the past few weeks:

– Watched New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman’s five minute video podcast, which we gleefully follow every week.

– Realized we weren’t going to make it home on a Sunday night in time to watch The Tudors on Showtime, so we logged into our Tivo online account via a laptop and ordered one of our Tivos to record the episode, which it did.

– Rented “La Vie en Rose” from Amazon’s Unbox service web site and had it download automatically to our Tivo where we watched it a few nights later (We regularly rent two or three Unbox movies a month and would rent even more if the selection was better and/or the release dates matched the DVD release date).

– Watched all manner of recorded TV shows like The Office, 30 Rock and Battlestar Galactica.

– Pulled an episode of the children’s show Charlie & Lola off the Tivo hard drive and onto my iMac using Roxio’s legal Tivo Transfer program which then converted it to a format for the iPod for my daughter to watch later on a car trip.

– Watched some of the movie trailer promo ads featured at the bottom of the Tivo home screen. Full disclosure: as a boy, I even watched a few of the extended new car promos Tivo featured when my wife wasn’t around.

What am I trying to say? Tivo does just about everything I want and if the selection of rentable movies and web video was simply expanded, I don’t think I’d have much left to complain about — well, maybe they could add back in the DVD player. Send Sony, Netflix, Apple et al away. You’re not needed here.

p.s In the mea culpa department, I was all wrong about the Tivo-Unbox link up when it was announced last year. Oops.