Sling TV arrives on Chromecast with free 2-month trial

IP-based television service Sling TV is finally making its way to Google’s Chromecast streaming device today, and it’s offering few carrots to bait those who’ve yet to sign up.
The announcement seems very much geared toward Sling TV until you hear about the perks being offered. As part of the Chromecast launch, Sling is offering new customers a two-month free trial of its basic package of over 20 channels. For (presumably) current subscribers, those that are willing to pay for three months of Sling TV upfront can also get a free Chromecast device.
The promotion is similar to one Google forged with Netflix when the Chromecast first debuted. However, this time the motivation is likely due to increased competition from the likes of Apple’s newly upgraded Apple TV and Amazon’s Fire TV. (Not to mention that Amazon also just yanked Chromecast from its online retail stores, both from Amazon and third-party sellers.)

Amazon will stop selling Apple TVs and Chromecasts. So what?

Although it seems pretty cut and dry, there are folks in tech media that feel Amazon shouldn’t actually stay competitive, as businesses tend to do to survive.
Case in point: Amazon doesn’t like that neither the Apple TV nor Google’s Chromecast provide easy access to its Prime Video service, so it’s taking steps over the next month to stop businesses from selling the products through its website.
“Over the last three years, Prime Video has become an important part of Prime,” Amazon said in an email to employees. “It’s important that the streaming media players we sell interact well with Prime Video in order to avoid customer confusion.”
This means that products which play nice with Amazon’s streaming video service — like most game consoles, Roku’s set-top boxes, and the company’s own FireTV — will remain available on Amazon. Apple and Google are the only ones being booted.
It’s hard to be too upset about this. Could this frustrate Apple and Google? Maybe. Will it be annoying for Amazon Prime customers who expect to be able to purchase anything through the company’s marketplace? A little, I guess. But that’s about it.
But let’s not pretend this is going to hurt Apple or Google that much. Apple has the highest sales per square foot of any retail store in the United States, and it can easily promote its products by emailing the hundreds of millions of people who gave the company their email addresses so they could download stuff from the App Store.
As for Google? Well, running the world’s most popular search engine has its perks. It can also put ads for the Chromecast on YouTube, in Gmail, and basically anywhere else it desires through its advertising platforms. Sure, it won’t offer free two-day shipping, but I doubt most people are in a rush to purchase a new dongle.
Could this be the start of a worrisome trend? Maybe. I guess it would be a problem if Amazon stopped selling e-readers that don’t support the Kindle Store, given that it’s all-but-synonymous with the product category. But those competitive devices are still listed on the company’s site, and that seems unlikely to change any time soon.
At this point, the only entity harmed by this action will be Amazon. It’ll frustrate people who want to make it their one-stop-shop for all things commercial, and it makes the company seem like a petulant child stomping its feet because the other, more popular kids don’t want to play with it. Does that seem like a stable company?
This move reeks of desperation. Amazon might be the biggest online retailer in the United States, but it’s not the only place where people can buy these products. It would’ve been better off allowing them to be listed on its site, if only to keep up its appearances, than to plan the products’ downfall to serve its own selfish purposes.
But we’re only discussing this because of the companies involved. Remove the brands and this becomes a lot less interesting. A retailer pulled some items from its virtual shelves. There are other stores, and luckily for anyone with a decent Internet connection, it only takes a few seconds to visit them and buy those items.
Yawn.

Vimeo finally adds Chromecast support to its iOS app

Better late than never: Vimeo added Chromecast support to its iOS app Friday, allowing users to cast videos straight from an iPad or iPhone to Google’s streaming stick or any Android TV device.

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Chromecast support for Vimeo has been a frequently-requested feature ever since Chromecast launched in summer of 2013. Vimeo acknowledged the delayed response in a blog post Friday, cheekily calling the cast feature “the one you’ve been waiting for.”

A Vimeo spokesperson told me that the company doesn’t have a firm date for bringing casting to its Android app, but added: “It’s a priority for us and coming soon.”

Chromecast comes to South Korea and Australia, now in 24 countries

Google’s quest to bring Chromecast everywhere continued with an expansion to Australia, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Belgium and Portugal in May of 2014. Chromecast is now available in 24 countries and territories.

The company struck a few partnerships with content providers in these countries, bringing cast capabilities to apps like NTT docomo in Japan and Tving and Hoppin in South Korea.

Users will obviously also be able to cast from Google’s own apps, with YouTube being especially popular in some of these countries. South Korea has long been the country with YouTube’s biggest mobile usage, with more than 60 percent of all YouTube views there now coming from mobile devices, according to a Google blog post.

This post was updated at 10:31 a.m. to reflect the fact that the international expansion actually happened nine months ago.

Google offers $6 Play Store credit to Chromecast users

chromecast goodiesGoogle hasn’t officially announced it, but if you own a Chromecast and check this offers page, there’s a good chance you’ll see a $6 Google Play Store credit available. I did just that and got the $6 added to my account to “enjoy a Valentine’s Day rental,” although it can be used for any media or app purchase in the Play Store. I’d also recommend bookmarking the Chromecast offers page and checking it from time to time. Between this and other offers Google has provided previously, they’ve paid for my Chromecast at least two times over.

Matchstick streaming stick delays shipping to get Netflix and faster chips

Matchstick’s Kickstarter backers will have to wait a bit longer to get the Firefox OS-based streaming stick: Matchstick is delaying shipments until August, the company announced Friday.

Matchstick wants to use that time to put digital rights management (DRM) in place — a key requirement to get premium video apps like Netflix — and also update its hardware to a faster chipset. Originally, Matchstick wanted to ship first devices to backers in February.

In an update posted to Kickstarter Friday, Matchstick said it has been exploring a number of new applications for the streaming stick that would require higher local processing power. That’s why Matchstick is now planning to ship with a quad-core chipset as opposed to the dual-core Rockchip CPU that was originally announced when the company launched its Kickstarter campaign back in late September.

I had a chance to see some of those applications during a brief demo in San Francisco on Thursday: Matchstick Content Manager Dan Lee showed me the prototype of a video conferencing app that would use a phone’s camera in conjunction with the TV display as well as a second-screen app that displayed contextual information relevant to what was showing on TV on the phone.

Lee also said that a big focus for the coming months will be DRM. Matchstick has decided to use Microsoft’s Playready DRM in order to get access to Netflix and other premium content services. As a Firefox OS-based device, it has to build a lot of things from scratch to make content protection work, and Lee said that Matchstick intends to contribute code it develops to integrate DRM schemes back to the open source community.

By embracing DRM, Matchstick does follow in Mozilla’s footprints. The browser maker has only recently begun to implement DRM for its browser in order to not lose out on Netflix as the video service is switching from Flash to HTML5. However, Mozilla’s decision has also been heavily criticized by DRM foes, and some of Matchstick’s backers may feel the same about the company’s decision.

To get ready for the now-delayed launch, Matchstick is also planning to staff up and raise some funding for its U.S. operations. Currently, the company employs about a dozen engineers in Beijing and 6 employees in Santa Clara.

Check out this video I shot earlier last year, before the product as officially announced, for a first glimpse at Matchstick:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VS0VUOfrycw]

Google’s Chromecast has been used for more than one billion casts

Google still hasn’t released any sales numbers for its Chromecast streaming stick, but Google’s Chief Business officer Omid Kordestani updated investors on one metric during the company’s Q4 call Thursday: Chromecast reached one billion cast sessions last week, Kordestani said.

This means that Chromecast usage seems to be accelerating: Google VP of product management Mario Queiroz told us at our Structure Connect back in October that Chromecast had reached 650 million cast sessions. Three months before that, the number of sessions was at 400 million.

Google defines a “cast session” as a user pressing the cast button within an Android, iOS or web app. In other words: Streaming multiple YouTube videos to your TV one after another counts as just one session.

Google put a lot of energy into international expansion for Chromecast in 2014. At CES, it also introduced Google Cast for audio, adding casting to connected loudspeakers from Denon, LG and Sony. Queiroz told me at Structure Connect that the company plans to introduce a V2 of Chromecast in the future.

Here’s my interview with Queiroz back in October:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EXUOyAjNSg]

PlayOn gets ready to launch a desktop app with ad skipping

Video streaming underdog PlayOn is getting ready to launch a desktop client for Windows in the coming months, which will allow users to play and record web videos from over 100 sources right on their computer. The PlayOn desktop client will also offer an option to skip ads on streams from major TV networks (think of it as a poor man’s Hopper), and users will be able to cast videos to a Chromecast streaming stick or Android TV.

playon Channels

[company]PlayOn[/company] has been around for years, and was initially trying to solve a simple problem: TV networks weren’t making all of their shows available for streaming on Roku boxes and other connected devices. That’s why PlayOn streamed them to a PC first, where videos were transcoded on the fly, and then relayed to the TV screen. The company eventually added video recording as well, essentially turning computers into DVRs for web video.

All of that didn’t go over so well with content providers, which didn’t like that PlayOn was undermining their streaming policies. As a consequence of this tension, Roku was forced to remove PlayOn’s public channel from its devices.

However, PlayOn CEO Jeff Lawrence wasn’t too concerned when I asked him about this during last week’s CES. PlayOn isn’t officially available on Roku anymore, he explained, but the company still has a channel on the platform: MyMedia allows Roku users to play content stored on their PCs, and a one-time in-app purchase adds the capability to play web videos as well.

playon Good Wife Detail

PlayOn’s desktop app promises to relay content to Roku as well and will also support casting to Chromecast. That’s notable because Google hasn’t actually released a Cast SDK for desktop apps — but PlayOn reverse engineered the protocol and made it work anyway.

That likely won’t help PlayOn to get any more popular with networks and device manufacturers, but it could be seen as a wake-up call for publishers that haven’t officially added casting to their media. In the end, users always find a way to play their favorite content on the devices of their choice — whether it’s officially supported or not.

Cast-Fi is a speaker with a display and a port for Chromecast

This is kinda neat: Burbank, California-based Aurender is showing a small speaker dubbed Cast-Fi 7 at CES that comes with an integrated 7-inch display to watch videos and TV shows, as well as a HDMI port that is meant to be used to plug in a Chromecast or any other HDMI-based streaming stick.

Here’s how the device looks like from the back, complete with a nook that perfectly fits a HDMI dongle:

Cast-Fi 7

The 24 watt speaker, which the company officially launched late last year, is selling for $399 on Amazon. That’s a lot of money, considering that you may be able to buy a small TV for less. But there is something compelling about this approach: The device itself doesn’t run any app platform, which also means that it won’t be outdated in a year or two. Instead, you just plug in a streaming stick, and you’re good.

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TCL and Philips add Firefox OS-based Chromecast competitor to TVs

Matchstick, the Firefox OS-based Chromecast competitor that made waves on Kickstarter last year, is teaming up with TCL and Philips/AOC to integrate its technology into TVs, monitors and set-top boxes. Matchstick CEO Jack Chang told me at CES in Las Vegas Monday that he expects these new partners to ship around one million devices powered by Matchstick’s multiscreen technology this year.

At the core of the partnership between [company]Matchstick[/company], [company]TCL[/company] and [company]Philips[/company] is Flint, a new technology that brings multiscreen interaction to Firefox OS-powered TV devices. Flint is essentially Matchstick’s answer to Google Cast, with the key difference that it is completely open source, allowing anyone to build Flint-capable hardware or software. “With Flint, we are hoping to extend to all kinds of consumer electronics devices,” Chang said.

Chang said both TCL and Philips already have devices that are powered by the same chipset as the original Matchstick streaming stick, which made it easy to port Flint. TV sets and other devices from TCL and Philips will still run their own native apps, but also offer multiscreen interaction through Flint as an added benefit, Chang explained. Flint-powered devices from TCL and Philips are expected to be available as early as Q2, and Chang told me that both companies would make them available worldwide.

At CES, Matchstick is unveiling Flint with a number of demos, which include HTML, Android and Firefox OS apps capable of flinging content to the TV. As with Chromecast, Flint is capable of handing off interaction to the cloud, so that users can launch media playback on their phone, and then do something else or even turn the phone off, with playback continuing on their TVs.

Unlike Chromecast, it will also allow ad-hoc mode, meaning that users will be able to stream directly to the device without the need for any internet connectivity — something that will come in handy for travelers looking to watch videos in their hotel room.

Word about a Firefox OS-based Chromecast competitor first got out when I got hold of one of these devices last June. Matchstick then started a Kickstarter for its streaming stick in October, and raised some $470,000 in the process. The company is expected to ship its first streaming sticks in February.

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