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500 channels and nothing to see

The former head of Apple engineering really likes a new curated, app-based TV interface called Molotov — and sees a future business model in it.

Molotov.tv www.webafrica.co.za

The lament of the title is now part of the vernacular, and expresses our frustration when faced with useless overabundance of content. The sentiment isn’t new: A Google search on the phrase gets about 65 million hits  —  and a Bruce Springsteen complaint.

The sentiment is even older than Springsteen’s lament. Some 55 years ago, FCC Chairman Newton Minow called TV a vast wasteland (edits and emphasis are mine):

I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

That was more than 50 years ago, so no mention of tablets or smartphones. Still, it sounds so much like today’s experience:

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”

How much progress since that May 9, 1961 address?

A look at a Cable TV program “guide” answers the question. Not much:

To be fair, some carriers offer a limited search function with an unforgiving 20th century user interface. Good luck if you only have a vague idea of what you’re looking for.

Thanks to my friend Ouriel Ohayon, I got an invitation to a beta version of Molotov.tv, a new app that runs on streaming devices — think Apple TV, Roku and their competitors, on tablets, PCs and Macs, and on smart TVs from Samsung and LG.

Because I don’t trust my first reaction, I’ve waited three months to write this, enough time for the third impression to settle in. Advertisers understand the need to let feelings stabilize, they know consumers like yours truly are dogs, they’ll snarf any new dog food; that doesn’t tell them anything. However, if Fido returns to the pail, they know the money pump is primed.

After three months, I keep returning to Molotov.tv and, because professional reflexes can’t be helped, I see business-model consequences.

Why?

Curation, a word appropriated by tech. In the old world, the curator of a museum preserves the works of art, picks and lovingly documents the contents of a show. Here, Molotov organizes your TV world by categories: Movies, Series, Information, Entertainment, Culture and sub-genres such as Musicals or Spy Thrillers:

One sees what’s live, what will happen in the near future, or go back into the past and see content in Replay mode. And, of course, bookmarks are available, as well as friends’ recommendations:

This is TV as it should be:

  • Curated, intelligible, easy to navigate
  • App as the delivery vehicle, and ...
  • Multi-device: Apple TV, Roku and similar; tablets, smartphones, smart TV
  • Internet delivery, meaning carrier-independent
  • All content in the cloud

For the past three months, I’ve been watching as friends joined the circle of beta testers and can now draw a few stable conclusions.

First, everyone loves Molotov — zero drop-out. And by everyone, I mean normal people and geeks alike.

Second, the love focuses on two attributes: Navigation (I easily get to what I want), and discovery/serendipity (I reach neat content that I didn’t know existed, or thought would be impossible to get to). One such example is the huge trove of movies permanently at one’s fingertips:

And cartoons:

Third: Bookmarking shows, series, news, entertainment or cultural programs, as well as exchanging recommendations. This is retroactively obvious, a future must-have for any type of TV viewing. While recommendations are a key feature of social networks, Twitter, Facebook and others, they haven’t been a part of traditional TV navigation.

Fourth: Molotov surfs on a strong new trend: Using multiple devices, tablets, personal computers, smart TVs and streaming devices to navigate, watch and recommend.

Fifth and last: The “cloudification” of TV. All TV content, like everything else, is or will be in the cloud, to be enjoyed not on the broadcaster’s say-so, but when we feel like it, or discover it. This sends us back to the importance of curation. Without curation, an immense amount and diversity of content only amounts to the vast wasteland lamented by Chairman Minow. With proper curation — "proper" meaning both human and algorithmic — TV content in the cloud is a welcoming library of enlightenment and entertainment.

From a professional investor point of view, one can see Molotov as creating profound changes in content-monetization opportunities.

Molotov users happily watch more TV. Here, the two operative words are happily and more. The iTunes phenomenon provided a large-scale demonstration of the monetary consequences of a well-oiled content curation and delivery mechanism: Music consumers agreed to consume more and pay more. Similarly, Molotov’s smoothed path to TV As It Should Be will yield higher ARPUs (average revenue per user).

Perhaps belaboring the obvious: Undiscovered content won’t yield revenue. That’s where curation comes in and digs up nuggets to be monetized  —  as long as another requirement is met: Those riches must be properly stored in the cloud. In a virtuous spiral, higher consumption rates and generating revenue from previously buried content will attract more content owners and distributors. This will help Molotov achieve critical mass and become a must, a destination for modern TV consumption.

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Jean-Louis Gassée's 48 years in tech have seen him in multiple roles, notably as president of Apple Products Division, founder CEO of Be, Inc (BeOS), board director (Cray, EFI, 3Com, Palm Source, Logitech), venture partner at Allegis Capital), author ("The Third Apple") and weekly columnist since 1982, currently on Monday Note. Reach him @gassee.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.