For the wireless industry, it may be the most disruptive technology of 2006. And it all happened because Blake Krikorian couldn’t watch a baseball game. Krikorian, a San Francisco native and baseball fan, was working with his brother at their technology consultants’ firm several years ago when the pair wanted to tune in to watch their Giants in a matinee game against the Chicago Cubs. With no TV in the office, Krikorian ordered a $19-per-month online baseball video service only to discover that his hometown games were blacked out. His frustration sparked the SlingBox, a “place-shifting” device that allows users to view their home TV over any computer with a broadband Internet connection. The piece of equipment, which now sells for as little as $180, hit U.S. retailers in mid-2004; the company sold 100,000 units of its flagship product in its first six months. The technology has come to market in 10 new territories since April, and retailers couldn’t keep the SlingBox on their shelves following the device’s U.K. debut. Eight months ago, the company released SlingPlayer Mobile, which can deliver home TV broadcasts to users with devices running Windows Mobile or Symbian operating systems. This week, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company will extend its support to the Palm OS.
What made you think you could extend content from consumers’ televisions to computers and mobile phones?
My brother (Jason) and I were advising mobile carriers in 2002, and I started to realize that this whole effort that the industry is pushing is going to break from an industry perspective. We’re spending more and more time in front of displays other than the TV; the number of displays is proliferating.
I said ‘Wait a second. Now I’m on my PC, it’s a different display, and I’m getting a subset of that living-room experience that I love. Now I’m going to my mobile phone, and I’m going to get a different subset, then to a portable media player for a different subset.’
All these come with more and more monthly fees. I thought, ‘This is just going to completely break. No one is stopping and thinking about what the heck the consumer wants.’
What kind of response have you received from wireless carriers, cable TV companies and content owners?
Of course, when the product was first announced, there was incredible response from consumers, and incredible response from the press, because they’re consumers. Sure enough, before anything really happened, before anyone really understood how it worked, there was a tremendous amount of saber-rattling.
Many, many times, there is this knee-jerk reaction where as soon as you hear of something the consumer really, really loves and is so empowering, the industry’s reaction is that it must be bad. Therein lies part of the whole problem.
Why should those who view place-shifting technologies as a threat embrace them?
If you really look at it, all these other efforts that are purely industry-driven, they’re going to fail. You just can’t jam things down people’s throats anymore.
We also saw that for the future of TV networks, sports leagues and other content owners, if they start to lose that relationship with the fan, it’s going to be a really bad thing for them. This product could be something that’s not just great for the consumer, but great for the industry as a whole. It’s about monetizing right. Everybody has to make money.
Have any content owners or network operators filed lawsuits against Sling Media? Do you anticipate any?
There’s not been a single legal challenge in the two-and-a-half year history of the company; we’ve not had a single one. Although, for some time-at least two years-I was hearing in the press and through the grapevine just about every week that we were going to get sued next week.
I really don’t anticipate any. I think more and more we’re starting to show (that) mobile operators, TV networks and content owners can actually benefit from this as well.
Analysts and wireless carriers have expressed concerns that SlingBox Mobile could bog down networks even as they leave service providers cut out of content revenues. Is this a legitimate concern?
Mobile operators have built out 3G networks, but not many people are coming. There are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent for video clips, subsets (of TV content), they’re promoting it like heck, but it’s not sticking.
Here comes this product, and there is a ton of saber-rattling about that. ‘It’s a terrible thing because it’s going to take down our mobile networks.’ That’s incredibly ironic. Here’s a product that’s so compelling that people will actually use it and it’s a problem. That’s something I would call, for them, a high-class problem. The biggest problem for them is that people are not signing up for these services.
So how should mobile network operators deal with such technologies?
Try to find out how to monetize it and promote it. Many of them are like, ‘This is a problem,’ but it’s probably more a case that there are people in these mobile operators who’ve banked their careers on, ‘We’re going to be the MSOs (multi system operators) of the wireless world.’
Sling Media, Orb Networks Inc. and others recently partnered with Hutchison Whampoa’s 3 in the United Kingdom for what some called a groundbreaking mobile Internet service. Are you hopeful that a U.S. carrier will follow 3’s lead and partner with place-shifting companies?
It’s going to happen, and, hopefully, deals like we did with 3 will show the way. Some operators are more progressive than others; it just takes time for the consumer to figure it out. There are certain carriers here in the U.S. and elsewhere that decide to severely limit what consumers can do-plans that are not really all-you-can-eat, or disabling (certain technologies). There are all these little gotchas, and it takes time for the consumer to kind of figure out how those games are being played. Over time, word will travel.
Does Sling Media see itself as one of the barbarians at the gates of the established telecommunications industry?
We view ourselves less as total rebels than as a representative for consumers, and we wear that patch proudly. We’re one who comes in peace, one who comes not to just totally stick it to the man. We fundamentally believe that for anything to be a truly sustainable business, for consumers to benefit, it has to be something that ends up working great for the industry as well.