Slingbox: A cure for a nonexistent problem
I've never understood the appeal ofSlingbox, the 5-year-old device that allows people to watch their local television stations and cable channels from anywhere outside their home. It strikes me that Slingbox is a solution in search of a problem -- and may be creating one too. Soon we'll see if the public and the television industry agree.
In his Slipstream column, the New York Times' Brad Stone says EchoStar, the satellite broadcaster that bought Sling Media almost two years ago in a deal valued at $380 million, is about to launch a big push to bring Slingbox into the mainstream. The plan, Stone writes, is not only to hype the device to EchoStar's 14 million subscribers but also to coax other cable and satellite distributors to license the technology as well. Considering how many times EchoStar's Chief Executive Charlie Ergen has alienated rival media companies, I wouldn't hold my breath on that one.
Here's how Slingbox works: Plug it into your television, and when you are on the road you can access your TV on your computer through an Internet connection or on a mobile phone.
The thing is, as someone who travels frequently, I don't need to tote my TV along with me. If I'm at a hotel -- guess what! -- there is a TV right there in the room("free HBO"). If I'm with friends, they have -- you're not going to believe it -- a TV. The shows are the same wherever you go, so the idea of watching them through a connection to my own television set really doesn't seem exactly cutting edge. At a price tag ranging from $180 to $200, the Slingbox seems like a redundant luxury in the age of Hulu and iTunes.
The only programming that is different from town to town across America is local news and sports. I'm guessing that most people on the road don't miss their local news. Sports is another story, however, and if the Slingbox does gain popularity, the sports leagues will pull the plug on viewers being able to watch games outside of their hometown but quick. I know someone who lives in Washington, D.C., and accesses Red Sox games from a second home in Massachusetts through a Slingbox. If only a handful of people are doing it, the leagues will look the other way. But if it becomes widespread, local television and cable channels that shell out millions for sports rights would make a stink. Big time.
Slingbox also touts that you can access your DVR and watch shows you've recorded. Okay, but if they're already on my DVR, I'm in no rush to watch them. I'm much more likely to travel with a bunch of movies or shows on my iTunes.
And then there's this marketing gem from a Slingbox advertisement on its site that excitedly declares that with the device, "you can watch TV in another room in your house on the computer." Of course, if you have a TV in one room, why would you go into another room to watch it on a computer?
Since it launched five years ago, Stone notes that Slingbox has not grown beyond "a few hundred thousand technology geeks who love the cutting edge and don't mind braving the dust devils behind their entertainment centers to get there."
And since it launched, numerous other services that don't cost $200 have popped up, so it seems more likely that the tech geeks will move on before the mainstream starts demanding their Slingbox.
-- Joe Flint
Top photo: Sling Media co-founder Blake Krikorian holds up the Slingbox PRO-HD, left, and the SlingCatcher at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Credit: Paul Sakuma/Associated Press. Inset photo: EchoStar Chief Executive Charlie Ergen. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images.