In June 2011, a Silicon Valley startup released a well received iOS app named Fanhattan to serve as a central place for finding streaming video. More recently, Fanhattan brought its service to the web. But it turns out the apps were something of a feint — for its entire existence the company has been secretly working on its own media-streaming device, and after two years Fanhattan is showing it to the world.
Today on stage at the D11 conference, Fanhattan co-founder and CEO Gilles BianRosa is unveiling Fan TV, an Yves Behar-designed entertainment system that combines the functions of cable set-top boxes and streaming devices like Apple TV and Roku. The device, which does not have a price or a ship date beyond "later this year," will include live and on-demand TV, streaming services, and a cloud DVR. It is controlled using swipe and tap gestures on a pebble-like, touchpad remote control designed to be used without having to look at it.
Fanhattan is trying to succeed where so many other entrants in the interactive television space have failed, creating a TV experience truly integrated with the internet. Everyone from the pioneering WebTV to the forthcoming Xbox One has required a separate cable box to bring content from the internet to the television; Fan TV merges those functions into a single device. "The company is trying to completely overhaul the entire system," said BianRosa, who previously co-founded the BitTorrent client and media hub Vuze, in an interview with The Verge.
Like other over-the-top services that create new interfaces for browsing TV and movies, Fan TV improves on the standard 700-channel cable-TV grid by aggressively sorting your viewing options: by type of show, by movie genre, by actor, and so on. For now, the company isn’t saying which services it will partner with to complement live TV, but a promotional video shows Hulu Plus and Redbox. The current iOS app connects with 29 services, including Amazon, NBC, and Netflix. When you find something you like, you can either start watching immediately or send it to your cloud DVR, which you can then manage remotely. Linking everything together is a service called Fan that bridges the web, mobile apps and Fan TV itself. (The web app, which has been in private beta, opens to the public today.)
But Fan TV goes beyond finding things to watch. In a demonstration, BianRosa selected Iron Man 2 with the remote, moved one screen to the right, and began playing its soundtrack through the TV using a music-streaming service. He then moved another screen to the right, where an integration with an online retailer brought up all Iron Man 2 merchandise available for purchase.
Fan TV goes beyond finding things to watch
Ultimately, Fan TV will work only if cable providers agree to partner with the company to provide a live TV stream. (For the moment, no cord-cutter version of the device is planned, BianRosa said, though he did not rule one out.) But some observers expect that a device like this could win positive attention from Comcast, Time Warner and its peers. "So far, we have evidence that the cable companies are willing to do this," said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner. "You have to remember, these companies are infrastructure providers. They’re great at putting a pipe into your house, but they’re not user-interface experts. They’re not interactive software developers. They need help to be able to do that." A better user experience makes it more likely that cable customers continue to pay for expensive monthly service instead of trying to make do with Netflix and Hulu, at a time when more and more people are cutting the cord.
Still, IPTV — live television delivered over the internet — is in its infancy. Sony, Comcast, Time Warner and Apple are among the companies that are reportedly building IPTV offerings, which would compete with existing services including AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS. But as of the first quarter of this year, only 12.8 percent of US homes have at least one television that can connect to the internet, according to John Buffone, director of device research for NPD Group’s connected intelligence unit. Of that number, only half of people have bothered to do so, Buffone said.
Meanwhile, competition for the living room is as fierce as it has ever been. This year will see the release of the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, which could be joined by an Amazon set-top box and a new TV offering from Apple. Just this week, Roku raised another $60 million as part of an effort to integrate directly with new televisions.
"It needs to be ridiculously better than what’s out there right now."
BianRosa said he is aware of the challenges in getting consumers to try an untested brand in their living rooms. "It needs to be not just better — it needs to be ridiculously better than what’s out there right now," he said. Without knowing more about price, availability or content partnerships, it’s impossible to say whether Fan TV is that device.
At the same time, if it matches the experience shown in today’s demos, Fan TV could win plenty of converts — even in a space that has grown increasingly crowded. "It’s not about being first to market; it’s about being best to market," BianRosa said. Being best at the TV game means more than getting the hardware and software right, though. It also means winning support from a host of partners in an industry where everyone is zealously protecting their turf. The biggest question about Fan TV isn’t whether it looks good — it does — but whether BianRosa and his crew can deliver on all the content they’ve promised.