Hulu’s made a real effort to justify its new $9.99/month premium service, with 720p HD streaming and a full back catalog of shows. But I think they’ve made a mistake by limiting free users to Hulu.com, while “Plus” users can access content on a bevy of new clients (TV-integrated, iOS, PS3, Xbox, etc.). I’ll admit that the new players are the most enticing feature to me; I rarely get into a TV show if it’s been on the air for a few seasons already, and I also rarely start watching a show far enough into the season that Hulu’s viewing window isn’t long enough. (It should be noted, too, that the “extra access” isn’t exactly new: I re-watched all 3 seasons of Arrested Development on Hulu probably over a year go.)
The mistake they’ve made is to perpetuate the status quo, furiously clung to by middlemen at every rung: the insistence that our pocket computers or living room computers are, in fact, not computers, but “mobile phones” or “game consoles”. I mean, surely they are still mobile phones and game consoles, but in just the last 5 years, both platforms have become so generalized that their names are mere vestiges of their once constricted use. The most damning example of this insistence is that new Android phones with Flash support, that are fully capable of using the Hulu website, are artificially blocked, I assume because they aren’t “computer-y” enough.
The question becomes, where is the line? Does it have to run Mac OS X or Windows? Does the screen have to be over and under certain size thresholds? What happens when someone finally puts Windows 7 on a small tablet? (Or, on the other end of the spectrum, what happens when Android is powerful & versatile enough to serve as a desktop OS?) As the general public sees more and more that applications and computers are separate (especially in the context of HTML5 applications), that reasonably we only need one powerful processor beneath our TV (and not a range of proprietary consoles), they’ll wonder why they can’t use the computer they already have for a given application, whether a game or Hulu.
Like so many other industries, contorting the present to resemble a comfortable past, they risk being swallowed by the future. Clay Shirky’s maxim is profoundly accurate: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”
I can only laugh at this particular contortion, trying to explain the convenience of their new TV apps:
Let’s start in your living room. You’re sitting down for dinner, and you’d like to pull Hulu up on your TV. Today you’d have to plug a computer into the TV and try to connect the audio from your computer to your sound system. It’s certainly doable, but it’s not as easy as it could be.
Actually, it’s just as easy as any other computer with an HDMI port (Xbox/PS3), since audio and video are carried over a single cable. If there’s any reason that using a laptop to watch Hulu is inconvenient, it’s not technical: it’s because they’re trying their hardest to make it difficult. And that gets right to the heart of the matter: that their business model is actually predicated on inconveniencing and deceiving users, rather than earning their trust.
If they had offered an HD and ad-free Hulu for $10/month, without restrictions on my computer’s screen size, I’d be in — even without any new content. As it is, I think Netflix is offering way more value for my $10.