With Qplay, the makers of TiVo want lightning to strike twice

By James Robinson , written on February 25, 2014

From The News Desk

Mike Ramsay and Jim Barton changed the television game in 1999 when they brought TiVo on the market. As we collectively hurtle into the future, with unlimited options for controlling and consuming content, it's hard to remember how magical the ability to pause and rewind live TV seemed.

Then the disrupter became disrupted as the company created a market it couldn’t stay in front of. Several digital video recorders entered the fray and cable companies  soon offered digital video recording of that same live TV. Today, TiVo barley survives.

Fifteen years later, Ramsay and Barton want to be disruptive again. When Barton left TiVo in 2012, after Ramsay had cut ties in 2007, they decided to get the band back together and set their sights on similarly revolutionizing how we watch video over the Internet, which he calls a decentralized mess.

"The network model has reinvented itself with brands, with apps," Ramsey says. "The problem used to be 500 channels, nothing to watch. Now it is 500 apps, nothing to watch.”

Ramsay and Barton wanted to go back to “ground zero” and crack the code for the first multi-platform Internet video player that spoke to the flexibility and functionality people crave. Their instincts are spot on. Services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go are all siloed off from one another. If you want to subscribe to YouTube channels, you have to get over to YouTube. We’re watching more content inside Twitter and Facebook, which is another source of media. These haven’t all been bought together yet.

These deeper questions have led Ramsay and Barton to Qplay, which goes on sale today, the result of 18 months of development and extensive market research. For $49, you can buy a small, flat device about the size of a portable hard drive to plug into your TV, which gives you access to download an iPad app. Eventually, the app will be uncoupled from the purchase of the device. For now, Qplay will be iPad-only as a way for the new company to control growth and meter out limited resources, Ramsay says.

Watching Ramsay demo Qplay, its stroke of inspiration is in involving the iPad in the viewing experience as a second screen and remote. Content can be viewed through the iPad on its own, but when the TV is switched on the two sync together. Qplay scrapes a user’s Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts to create “queues” of video, which can be viewed by source, in order, or curated into a list. The Discovery Channel and the Wall Street Journal will offer streams of videos. Users can mix and match their own lists of content or subscribe to others. They can follow others and see what they’re watching, too.

Ramsay believes this curated, sharing driven element of Qplay is its differentiator. “In the broadcast world, sharing was taboo," Ramsey says. "On the Internet sharing is cool. It is a powerful method of spreading content."

Upon launch, Qplay won’t come with Netflix and Hulu functionality, but that's coming soon. “It was just a timing thing," Ramsey says. "You have to go through authentication, get all of the metadata to drive the apps and we wanted to get into the marketplace.”

Ramsay says that Qplay is an experiment of sorts and a spiritual sequel to TiVo. It won’t have the same wow factor as its predecessor, as attempts to slice, repackage, and take control of the giant mound of content we’re trying to get through each day online are old hat.

Qplay wants to bring video online into the same place and put the power to curate it at our fingertips. Ramsay is right that services like Netflix and Hulu are not integrated together yet into an easy flow of content, but even if that does replicate an old world model, is there an element of that predictability that consumers like? His new device is based on a bet of sorts, that passive, social consumption of media -- things we watch on Facebook and Twitter -- can be rolled into our entertainment time, when we sit down to watch House of Cards. By introducing a social element, Qplay could risk making the experience of watching more complicated.

It will not face an easy path to rapid adoption, either. Ramsay is right that Qplay is different than Roku or Apple TV in not just providing an interface to access different content from the TV but allowing us to bring the content we want into a single stream. But it seems a stretch that this will be different enough for people to abandon their current providers. Ramsay’s new product might find itself running behind the pack, straight out of the gate.

The Qplay is a noble attempt, but Ramsay and Barton will likely confront a hard truth: it’s hard to bottle lightning.