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Tuesday, 27 May 2008 12:06

Why Hiro is not my hero

On the face of it, Hiro-Media's approach to distributing ad-supported video content without the usual DRM issues seems promising, but there are some major flaws.

The basic idea is that rightsholders can release files without conventional digital rights management that viewers can download free of charge and copy for their friends, or even distribute via peer-to-peer networks. Yet the rightsholder still gets the revenue. That sounds like the best of both worlds, so what's the catch?

The business model is that ads are dynamically inserted as the content is played, providing a revenue stream for the rightsholder. That still sounds fine to me, as long as the ads aren't too intrusive.

The problem broadcast TV has is that ad breaks are so long and so frequent that they've become a major barrier to enjoying the show. Consequently, people channel surf, use technology to fast-forward or completely skip over ads, or simply leave the room. Consequently, they never see many of the ads.

(It's interesting to hear that the Fox network in the US is going to experiment with shorter and less frequent breaks in some shows, charging more for the spots that are available to make up the difference as well as the cost of the higher proportion of program material.)

Hiro's approach is to prevent fast forwarding or rewinding during ads. Furthermore, the ads are dynamically inserted along with pieces of the show that were omitted from the original file. Once the Hiro software has collected these items, the file will play locally for a few days, after which a new set of ads fetched from the server before it can be played again.

So what are the snags?

Well, the ads are selected from Hiro-Media's inventory on the basis of demographic information users provide when they register. There's nothing forcing you to give correct details of your income or age, but some people may be uncomfortable with the idea snyway.

A related issue is that it doesn't seem to be possible to use the same user name on two or more computers. That might be good from a privacy perspective - you can be a twentysomething Venezuelan female graduate earning $9,000 a year on one computer and a 65 year old Swiss man who only finished high school and rakes in $1 million on another.

The more honest you are, the more closely the ads will match your interests - more accurately, the more precisely advertisers can target you.

But my main beef is technical. Hiro installs more than just a codec or two. There's also a piece of software that runs permanently in the background (using between one and 10 percent of the CPU cycles on my computer). There are also various support files tucked into folders that you wouldn't normally look in when uninstalling software.

I could probably forgive that if I was able to play Hiro content, but I can't. Even though the software is installed, the effect is exactly the same as if it wasn't. The video is overlaid with a translucent box saying that I need to install Hiro, and a short way into the program the video freezes and the sound continues. I've downloaded two shows from completely separate sources, and the result is the same except that the freeze occurs 60 seconds into one and 30 seconds into the other.

Am I alone? Read on to find out.

I'm not the only person reporting this problem. In an unsuccessful attempt to find relevant troubleshooting information from Hiro-Media I discovered other users are getting the same unsatisfactory results.

To be fair, I have heard from one user who found that Hiro content played correctly after a restart, but that didn't make any difference to my system.

And contrary to what you may have read in a comment elsewhere on iTWire, as far as I can determine Hiro content does not work with the popular VLC media player. I've tried it on Windows and Mac OS X, and the result is the same as playing the file on a system that lacks the Hiro software.

The only good news is that Hiro does work on my Windows XP system. That's not ideal from my point of view, as the screen is significantly smaller than my iMac's, but at least I could satisfy myself that the files I'd downloaded weren't at fault. Technical support for Hiro seems non-existent.

Oh, you wanted to use the content on your Linux-based media PC? Forget it.

But is this of any real significance? Can't we just turn our backs on Hiro as another experiment in ad-supported media that didn't work out?

I'll attempt to answer those questions on the final page, so please stay with me just a little longer!

The problem for Australians is that there are few legal download sources for TV shows. Channel 7 doesn't seem to offer anything for download, though clips from some shows are available for online viewing in Flash format (those I've seen squish widescreen content into 4:3). The same seems to go for Channel 10, but at least it does have some full shows rather than mere clips. The SBS also offers Flash clips, and does get the 16:9 thing right.

The ABC is probably the most advanced, offering complete episodes of various shows in MP4 or WMV versions - you can even subscribe to them as video podcasts. And the aspect ratio is correct whether you watch on the web or after downloading, but 320 x 180 resolution isn't great for viewing on anything other than a mobile device.

And that leaves Channel 9. There's a small selection of full shows (good), they're relatively high resolution for downloadable content - 1024 x 576 for the one I sampled (also good), but the network chose Hiro which limits their playability (bad). One of the benefits of Hiro is said to be that the content can be distributed efficiently via P2P, but 9 makes no attempt to do this - instead, would-be watchers face a relatively slow download from the network's web site.

So I'm left wondering: is all this an experiment that's designed to fail? If providers deliver legitimate content online using formats that severely restrict their usefulness, will it be any surprise if they are largely ignored? And if that happens, will the networks claim there's no real demand for full downloads? After all, if they can't give the shows away, who's going to buy them if the local iTunes Store ever gets TV shows and movies?

Is this going to drive people back to broadcast TV? I doubt it - the individuals I hear from that use P2P to feed their viewing habit seem content to stick with it. Others will just continue to use VCRs and PVRs to skip over the ads.

There's an opportunity here, but the commercial outlets seem content to muffle its knocking sound rather than make the most of it - even if that does mean pressuring Hiro-Media to get rid of its system's rough edges.



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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.


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