Category: The Front Line

Everything Old Is New Again: Goodbye To The VCR

This past summer, the Funai Corporation of Japan decided to stop manufacturing videocassette recorders (VCRs) after several decades, citing their inability to source parts as the reason.

What’s that you say? You didn’t even know anyone was STILL making VCRs in 2016?

A reporter for the Washington Post was referred to me by The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) for some pithy quotes about the demise of the VCR, which had its debut in the United States 40 years ago this past summer. Yes, the ½” videocassette format has been around for some time, with the most popular iteration being the VHS format developed by Japan Victor Corporation, better known as JVC.

Sony also had a ½” videocassette format for home use called Betamax, and in many ways, it was a better way to record and watch TVs shows along with movies. But Sony’s insistence at keeping Betamax a proprietary format (a la Apple with Mac OS and iOS) eventually doomed it.

In contrast, JVC licensed VHS to a long list of companies: Panasonic. Hitachi, Philips. RCA. Zenith. GE. Sharp. You name the CE company; they probably sold a VHS VCR at some point. And that had a lot to do with the success of the format, which soon migrated to consumer camcorders. There was even a short-lived digital version (D-VHS) for recording HD programs and playing back movies in HD, starting in the late 1990s. Blu-ray soon killed that off, though.

When you think about it, the VCR was really at the top (or bottom) of a family tree that leads directly to today’s streaming, on-demand video services. And here’s why – the VCR created the concept of time-shifting; recording a TV program so you could watch when you wanted to, not when CBS, ABC, or NBC said you could.

VCRs also gave us the ability to skip through commercials, pause, and rewind to watch a clip over and over again. Or the entire show, for that matter. After Hollywood lost the famous Sony vs. Universal Studios Supreme Court decision in early 1984 – which ruled that making recordings of TV shows for home viewing was considered “fair use” under copyright statutes – the floodgates opened.

Not long after, studios started making movies available on VHS and Betamax cassettes for sale. Enterprising individuals, noting the $90 and $100 price tags for movies on cassette, opened small video rental clubs. For having your credit card on file, you could rent a movie for $5 or $6, making sure to rewind it (or paying an extra fee) and returning it for another movie.

Hollywood studios weren’t happy with this turn of events until smarter heads realized the additional revenue stream could add millions to the bottom line. And so companies like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video came into existence, happily raking in the cash as stacks of rental cassettes walked out the door every night.

The introduction of the DVD format almost 20 years ago (yes, it HAS been that long!) posed an immediate threat to the VHS format. (Betamax had long since folded its tent and left town.) Now, you didn’t need to rewind anything, and there was no annoying, blinking “12:00” indicator staring at you the entire time.

Bet of all, you could now jump through chapters of a movie by looking at I-frames. Fast forward, pause, and reverse were still available, but in theory, an optical disc would long outlast a VHS tape. It didn’t take long before video rental stores started replacing VHS tapes with DVDs, and by 2005, it was almost impossible to find a movie on VHS.

That was the first year that DVD sales began to decline, although rentals held their own for a few more years. Looming on the horizon were two new HD optical disc formats – HD DVD and Blu-ray – and Hollywood was giddy anticipating wheelbarrows of cash coming in. (True fact: The first Austin Powers movie was largely ignored at the box office and made most of its money through DVD rentals and purchases.)

But there was a fly in the ointment. About 7 years earlier, a company called TiVo unveiled something called the digital video recorder, or DVR. This gadget would let you record analog broadcast and cable TV programs to a hard drive – no tape or disc needed. TiVo sold a subscription program guide service, which is where they made most of their money. I had one of the first Philips-made TiVo units (14-hour capacity) and bought a lifetime subscription for $99 back in 1999, using a dial-up connection to refresh the program guide.

So now we could record a TV program, skip the commercials; fast-forward, pause and rewind, and simply delete the file when we were done. “Did you TiVo Letterman last night?” soon became water cooler talk. Along the way, we had obviated the need for any kind of recording media – tape or disc – in favor of solid-state storage.

A year after DVD sales started their decline, I bought one of TiVo’s first HD DVRs. It accepted CableCARDs, so it would work with Comcast. And it had dual DVRs (Wow!) so I could record two programs at once. It was big and noisy, but it served me well for 9 years.

Along the way, companies like Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Dish Network, Verizon, and DirecTV came out with their own DVRs, some of which could record 4 or more shows at once. Now, you could record movies in high definition and watch them at your pleasure on your brand-new big-screen plasma or LCD TV.

And that brings us to the present day. Hollywood Video is long gone, and Blockbuster is bankrupt; its assets bought by Dish Network. The Blu-ray format, having vanquished HD DVD, isn’t the cash cow that Hollywood anticipated as more and more video and movies are watched via ever-faster streaming connections. DVD players – once selling for $1,000 – can be found for $19.99. And Blu-ray players with WiFi are widely available for about $50 – $70.

Netflix has now evolved into a streaming media monster, as has Amazon. YouTube, a pioneer in streaming shared videos, now offers a “red” premium tier, free of commercials. HBO and Showtime, along with ABC and CBS, have started subscription streaming services that can be purchased without a cable or satellite subscription. Episodic TV series are being produced for streaming channels and they’re not scrimping on production values.

So we’ve come full circle. My Comcast Xfinity set-top box is a DVR, but it streams channels from a cloud server, not from an internal hard drive. My contacts at Comcast tell me we’re not far from the day when there won’t be any set-top (or sidecar) receivers at all – your smart Ultra HDTV with WiFi will do all the heavy lifting. (After all, smart TVs are basically computers with big display screens these days.)

Today, you can go quite happily through life without having to wind a tape or load a disc in order to watch HDTV.  And that’s exactly the way things were forty years ago. Weird, right? Except you now have hundreds of channels to choose from; all of which can be streamed on-demand depending on the service you subscribe to.

Time-shifting. Commercial skipping. DVDs. Blu-ray. DVRs. Chapter searches. Video streaming. All of these grew directly out of that first VHS VCR that was sold 40 years ago.

And all you need to watch it is a smart TV and a remote. Everything old is indeed new again…





OLEDs Can Fold. So What?

The idea that a folding OLED display will somehow revolutionize portable product design and create a volcanic market expansion periodically raises its ill-conceived head. A recent occurance was the presentation by UBI Research president Choon Hoon Yi at IMID 2016 in Jeju entitled “Flexible OLED Opens New Digital Convergence.” Yi’s “digital convergence era” refers to the convergence of phone and tablet, in which the screen can be completely folded and unfolded, allowing a 5-inch phone screen to become tablet sized.

Is it possible to develop OLED displays so flexible they can be said to fold? Yes. Is it then plausible that such a display can be integrated into a “convergence” product that consumers will actually buy in large numbers? That part is questionable.

The foldable concept most people seem to think of is shown in this photo of a 2013 Samsung design demonstration. The display inside the folder wraps around both halves to make the double-sized display when the folder is opened. So, when the folder is closed, we have three thickness of display. Well, okay, polymer OLEDs are thin. We also have three thicknesses of touch panels, three thicknesses of Gorilla glass, and at least two flex circuits. You’ll probably need multiple audio drivers, microphones, and cameras so they can be pointed in the right directions when the folder is open and closed. This is becoming a rather beefy device, and consumers like their phones thin. They have also, especially in North American and Asia, enthusiastically rejected clamshell phones. And this is, no matter how you try to wriggle around it, a clamshell.

This Samsung foldable OLED technology demo was shown fairly extensively in 2013.  (Photo:  Samsung)

This Samsung foldable OLED technology demo was shown fairly extensively in 2013. (Photo: Samsung)

Next problem. When the device is open and in tablet mode, the screen must be rigid and flat both to provide a distortion-free image for movie watchers and a usable touch screen for swiping and typing. That means our folder can not be made of flexible, supple Corinthian leather, unless its supported with a rigid sheet of something. And the folding part has to be supported by a robust hinge that locks at 180 degrees, and perhaps at other angles, as well.

Can each of these design challenges be dealt with by clever engineers and lots of development money? Sure they can, but in the end you are significantly compromising the user’s experience of a phone or a tablet in order to create this convergence device.

Compare it with the iPhone 7 or Samsung Galaxy S7, which are slim, sleek, polished, and very, very good at what they do. The Galaxy S7 has an OLED display and the S7 Edge has a flexible one. Of course, it is only flexed once, when the phone is assembled, but that’s enough.

In fact, while it is very easy to envision extremely useful applications for flexible OLEDs, it is very hard to envision practical applications that require the OLED to be flexed more than once. Except for one. But that’s another story.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications, including mobile devices and television. He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies re-positioning themselves within the display industry or using displays in their products. You can reach him at

LeEco: Today Vizio, Tomorrow the World?

When LeEco (Leshi Internet Information & Technology) exhibited at one of the press-and-analyst shows at CES 2016, it had not yet changed its name from Letv. Letv showed prototypes and products that were notable both for their variety and strikingly handsome industrial designs.

Some of those products also contained advanced components. At Qualcomm’s CES press briefing, the company said the Letv Le Max Pro was the “first announced smartphone” to use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 processor, as well as the phone with the “first announced support” for Multi-gigabit 11ad in a smartphone. Early members of the Le Max family went on sale in China in July 2015, and quickly became the best-selling high-end phone in China, topping both Apple and Samsung, according to Sino Market Research.

But the change of name from Letv to LeEco is appropriate because the company’s focus is on a global ecosystem strategy it calls “Le Ecosystem” — an Internet-based platform encompassing content and applicatons, as well as devices. The company also has a dizzying array of other businesses, including eco-agriculture, Internet-connected electric cars, and a cinema production company.

At one of the press-and-analysts-only events held at CES 2016, LeEco (then called Letv) showed a variety of its electronic products (as well as a bicycle).  The handsomely designed thin TV seen edge-on is the Max65 Blade, a 65-inch UHD set that is only 3.9mm thick thanks to a Corning Iris Glass light-guide plate.  The SoC is a Snapdragon 810.  (Photo:  Ken Werner)

At one of the press-and-analysts-only events held at CES 2016, LeEco (then called Letv) showed a variety of its electronic products (as well as a bicycle). The handsomely designed thin TV seen edge-on is the Max65 Blade, a 65-inch UHD set that is only 3.9mm thick thanks to a Corning Iris Glass light-guide plate. The SoC is a Snapdragon 810. (Photo: Ken Werner)

The LeEco Group (Beijing) started when Jia Yueting establilshed in 2004. Now called, it is among the largest on-line video providers in China. LeEco started its TV hardware business only recently, in 2013. According to IHS, LeEco “focuses on the growth of the paid content subscription, while it sells TV hardware at below manufacturing cost or even provides it for free during promotional periods.” Please keep that in mind as you read the following paragraphs.

On July 26, as is well known in our community, LeEco and U.S.-based TV manufacturer Vizio announced the LeEco would acquired VIZIO for $2 billion. The combined TV sales of VIZIO (No. 2 in the U.S.) and LeEco (No. 7 in China) would have been sixth in the world in 2015, ahead of Skyworth.

Vizio’s management and customer service teams will remain in place, and the company’s sets have always been made in China, so it’s the global strategies and synergies that are important here. LeEco buys VIZIO’s know-how and sales and distribution infrastructure in the U.S. VIZIO gets access to the Asian (including Chinese) market, where it currently has little exposure.

We’re not done yet. On August 2, Variety reported an upcoming content deal between LeEco and Netflix. “We are planning a very significant cooperation with Netflix,” said Liu Hong, co-founder and vice chairman of LeEco, speaking in Beijing on Tuesday. “Details will be announced in the third quarter.”

A quick look at shows a large selection of Chinese-language films and videos. How does Netflix content fit in there? It could, of course, with dubbing or subtitles, and a period for approval from Chinese censors (which is becoming a lengthier and more thorough process). But China may not be where LeEco intends to go with the Netflix content. The company intends to come here.

LeEco will officially announce its new U.S. presence this autumn. PR director Todd Witkemper said LeEco has about 400 U.S.-based employees now and intends to have a thousand by year’s end, reported Jimmy Westenberg in a June 17 posting on Android Authority. The company will reportedly introduce a video streaming service and very competitively priced smartphones to the U.S.

LeEco is also rolling out its phones and a video streaming service in India. Variety speculates that a LeEco/Netflix deal might also be done for the Indian market.

So, are we likely to see free VIZIO sets being used as inducements to sign up for LeEco’s new U.S. streaming service? If LeEco attempts their free-device strategy in the U.S., I would guess using their own smartphones is more likely. We’ll see.

Cord-Cutting: A Slow And Steady Drip, Drip, Drip

An interesting study was just conducted by consulting firm cg42 and it claims that pay TV service providers stand to lose as much as $1 billion in revenue over the next 12 months. The reason? Cg42 says that as many as 800,000 customers are likely to ‘cut the cord’ in an attempt to save money on pay TV packages and bundles.

Cg42 surveyed 1,119 customers online this past summer and calculated that pay TV companies could lose as much as $1,248 per lost subscriber on an annual basis. In their survey, they found that the average pay TV subscriber spends about $187 per month for cable TV, phone, Internet access, and video streaming subscriptions.

In contrast, ‘cord nevers’ – people who have never subscribed to pay TV services – spend about $71 per month on broadband access and video streaming subscriptions. The streaming part of that amounts to as little as $15 per month.

Cg42’s survey revealed that both cord-cutters and cord-nevers don’t care much for traditional TV programming, and 83% of cord-cutters said they can access most or all of the content they want to watch without a pay TV subscription. (87% of cord-nevers said the same thing.)

Perhaps more ominous for companies like Comcast and Time Warner, the satisfaction of watching TV without paying for cable or satellite services increases the longer these viewers remain away from pay TV subscriptions.

The most popular streaming service is still Netflix, which 94% of respondents subscribe to.  And number 2? YouTube’s free video channels, which offer selected clips from late night talk shows and musical performances.

Surprisingly, many respondents get their sports fix by going to bars or restaurants to watch games. The survey didn’t mention how many people also watch sports on free over-the-air TV, which of course includes NFL games, selected baseball games and the World Series, the NHL playoffs, and the NBA playoffs, plus the Olympics, golf, tennis, and NASCAR/Indy Car racing.

Surveys like these aren’t anything new. We’ve seen analysts forecasting the end of traditional pay TV packages for several years now. However, there is a real concern about the cost of these monthly services, and whether they’re worth the price.

I’ve advised numerous folks on how to get free over-the-air television and supplement it with streaming services to save money – and in fact, later today, I’ll be visiting someone nearby to do an RF site survey and see how well he can receive the local Philadelphia stations at home (upward of 50 minor channels).

Couple that with broadband service and there’s no real reason to stay with pay TV, especially now that you can subscribe to HBO and Showtime online without a pay TV service.  You can also do without landline phone service if you have a mobile phone, further reducing your monthly expenditures.

I said this a few years ago in several columns: The future of cable TV is providing broadband service. Just like mobile phone companies charge you only for data (phone calls and messaging are basically free now), so will cable and satellite companies. They will look more like the electric company, charging you for however many gigabytes you used that month.

And how you use the data will be up to you: sending and receiving photos, streaming video, emails, and voice-over-IP. That’s the real future of Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Bright House, and other MSOs. The question is, have they accepted it yet?

Ultra HDTV, HDMI 2.0, and HDCP 2.2 – Oh, What A Tangled Web We Weave…

A few days ago, I received an email from the president of an AV products manufacturer. He had purchased a Samsung UN65HU8550 65-inch Ultra HDTV back in 2014 and decided to take the plunge into Ultra HD Blu-ray.

Previously, he had been using an upscaling Blu-ray player to achieve 3840×2160 resolution, but now he wanted the real thing. So, he visited his local Best Buy and picked up Samsung’s UBD-K8550 UHD Blu-ray player, took it home, and connected it to one of the HDMI inputs on his UHDTV.

Sounds simple, right? Except that it didn’t work. The UHD disc spun up, started to play, and then a message was displayed that the player would down-convert to 1080p resolution because it didn’t detect support for HDCP 2.2 (the newest and most aggressive form of copy protection for optical disc media).

To him, this made no sense whatsoever. (Me, too!) Here he was, playing an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc, from a Samsung Ultra HD BD player, into a Samsung Ultra HDTV – and it wouldn’t work. I advised him to make sure he was truly using an HDMI 2.0 input (sometimes labeled as such, or color-coded).

He tried all of the inputs, including the MHL input that is supposed to be compliant with HDCP 2.2, but no luck. Again, the disc would spin up, and then display the same error message. (By the way, HDMI 1.3/1.4 inputs can also support HDCP 2.2.)

Another trip to Best Buy resulted in the purchase of Philips’ BDP7501 Ultra HD Blu-ray model, which was then connected to the Samsung TV and – voila! It worked, playing back in true 2160p resolution.  That is; only when connected directly to the Samsung TV, and NOT through his existing Denon AVR (which likely doesn’t support HDCP 2.2 key exchanges on any of its HDMI ports).

Some quick checks on the Internet showed this wasn’t an isolated problem – others had purchased the same TV, or different screen size variations of it, and were unable to watch 4K movies from the Samsung player. One comment I read talked about going so far as to buy an HDCP 2.2 to HDCP 1.4 converter, a product I wasn’t even aware existed. And apparently, it worked! (Warning: This product may be illegal to purchase as it alters a copy-protection process. I’m only providing the URL as a reference.) (

The next step was to check in with my friends at Samsung, who responded that an upgrade kit would fix the problem. It’s called the SEK3500U One Connect Evolution Kit, and attaches to your Samsung 4K TV through a separate connector on the side panel.  This $400 box – which resembles a thin Blu-ray player – provides four HDMI 2.0 inputs, all up to speed with HDCP 2.2 support, HDMI 2.0a compatibility for high dynamic range playback, and improved color rendering, according to several Amazon reviews I read. ( Samsung also commented that frame rates may play a part in the problem, as the Blu-ray Disc Association HDR specification for HDMI 2.0a calls for 2160p60 playback with 4:4:4 color, and that using a lower frame rate might fool the UHDTV into down-converting to 1080p resolution.

All of this just confirms my continued advice to my friends and colleagues: “Wait just a little bit longer before you buy a 4K TV.” Too many things are still in a state of flux on the manufacturing side, not the least of which is support for multiple high dynamic range formats. And the issues with HDCP 2.2 support are frankly, just ridiculous at this point: The standard’s been out for a few years, and it will be used exclusively with all HDMI inputs on Ultra HDTVs.

Another takeaway from this is the slow and steady move away from optical disc delivery of 4K movies and TV shows to streaming connections. The protocols for copy protection are a bit different for streaming, but at least the underlying architecture is standard across all platforms (some sort of common streaming protocol like RTSP, carrying MPEG4 H.264 or HEVC H.265 / VP9 with IP headers) and can be easily updated with software.

Given the continual increase in home broadband speeds – especially in metro areas – 4K streaming is fast becoming a realistic option. Granted, the image quality at 15 – 20 Mb/s won’t be as good as a file coming off an optical disc at 100 – 110 Mb/s, but as we’ve seen repeatedly, the vast majority of home viewers continue to choose convenience and price over quality. That may be one reason there are only three Ultra HD Blu-ray players on the market today: How many people are going to spend $300 – $400 – $500 for one?

As I write this, the SEK3500U is on its way, and my colleague will soon be enjoying true Ultra HD movies like he should have been from the start. I suppose the $400 cost is a small price to pay if you’ve already shelled out a few thousand dollars for an Ultra HDTV, but it would irk me to no end to be in that situation. (You know what they say about the “leading” edge often being the “bleeding” edge.)

To summarize; my advice to readers remains the same as it has been. If you are thinking of buying a new Ultra HDTV – like me – WAIT until next spring, or at least until Super Bowl time. Not only will you see lower prices, but you’re more likely to have all of the bugs out of the system – and you’ll be able to score a good deal on a set that can show high dynamic range content, too; certainly supporting two or more of the new HDR formats.

And if you just gotta have an Ultra HD Blu-ray player? Those prices will have come down, too. A quick check on Amazon shows the UBD-K8500 currently available for $317.99, while the Philips BDP7501 will cost you $279.99.  (Panasonic’s DMP-UB900 player wasn’t shipping at the time this article was written.)

Caveat emptor….