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Orb TV brings Hulu to the TV, minus the fee

November 19, 2010 |  7:42 am

Orb TV, Hulu, Hulu Plus, iPhone, Android, over the top, cable bypass The online television service Hulu's love-hate relationship with TV sets took a few twists this week. It's now easier to watch Hulu's programming on a big screen in your living room, but not necessarily in the way that Hulu's owners want you to.

As new set-top boxes emerged to bring online video to the TV screen -- e.g., Boxee and Roku -- Hulu altered its site to block these devices from displaying its free programs. That's because the studios and networks that own Hulu and supply it with programming were afraid of undermining the cable TV operators that pay them far more for their content than they were making from advertisers online.

In June, Hulu announced that it would test a paid version of its service ("Hulu Plus") that would work on set-top boxes, mobile phones and other previously shunned devices. The trial phase recently ended, and Hulu Plus is now widely available -- for example, it went live on Roku's devices this week. Better yet, Hulu dropped the price from $10 a month to $8.

But Hulu Plus is like a lock on the windows of a house whose door is open. As long as most of Hulu's programs remain available for free on the Web to people using a standard computer browser, clever tech companies will find a way to bring them to the TV set.

That's just what Oakland-based Orb has done.

The new, $99 Orb TV is a hockey-puck-sized device that brings hundreds of free TV programs from Hulu and the networks' websites to the TV screen. Chief Executive Joe Costello says Orb TV relies on a home PC or Mac to receive programs from the Internet; the device simply acts as a bridge between the computer and the TV screen. Hulu's owners may not like what Orb is doing, Costello said, but "there's no way to stop that" short of blocking all computers from Hulu.

In a recent interview, Costello said his company spent several years trying to figure out how to make a successful set-top -- a task that's defied some of the world's biggest tech companies. Surveys with consumers revealed that "the No. 1, 2 and 3 things people wanted" were Hulu and other sources of premium TV programming. But that wasn't enough, Costello said: Consumers want the full panoply of what's available online as well as the media stored on their computers.

Hence Orb's approach, which requires the user to have a computer running on his or her home network in order to watch online video programs on their TV. I suspect that many consumers would rather have a box that works independently, like the Roku devices do, and doesn't lose access abruptly to program menus and streams, as my Orb did when my Mac was in sleep mode.

On the other hand, Orb TV handles Hulu quite well, aided in no small measure by its choice of remote control: an iPhone or Android smartphone. Rather than being constrained by the typical remote's up/down, left/right approach to menus, the Orb smartphone app makes it easy to tab through genres of programs, scroll alphabetically through an index of TV shows or search for shows by name. Another bonus: You can use the Orb software on your computer to stream video and music to your iPhone if your TV screen isn't available.

The software combines shows from more than 30 online TV sources tapped by Orb into one common index, making it easier to find what you're looking for. (It has separate indices for videos from different sports, including football, basketball and soccer.) It also provides access to Netflix, YouTube and Dailymotion.

How well the Orb performs depends in part on the quality of the wireless network to which it's attached. My WiFi is maddeningly weak near my TV, so the Orb's feeds stuttered enough to make the experience unpleasant. That was my network's fault, not Orb's, although I wish the device had an Ethernet port for more reliable wired networking. (Another item for my Orb wish list: an HDMI port for higher-quality video output.) I also had trouble with the Orb Android app, which showed little interest at times in connecting to the Orb TV device. The iPhone app, on the other hand, worked smoothly.

Costello said the company's goal is to make all high-quality online video sites available to Orb users. To that end, it's developing a way for sites to plug into Orb independently, without waiting for the company's software to find them. The point, Costello said, is to make "anything in the world, whether it's in the cloud or my home network ... a member of this personal network community that's formed by our software."

He also said that the TV industry shouldn't view Orb as an adversary, even though the networks haven't yet found a way to make streaming as lucrative as broadcasting has been. According to Costello, Orb has developed technologies that dramatically improve the ability of advertisers to target their pitches. Orb can enable online streams to send multiple versions of an ad to each viewer, then have Orb's software choose the one that best matches the viewer's profile. Said profile would be based on a private record of all the shows the viewer has tuned in, Costello said.

"The problem is we're in this weird, awkward state" between TV-industry business models, he said. Streaming "doesn’t have to be free, and it doesn't have to have bad compensation." The right model for online video will get worked out over the next few years, Costello predicted. In the meantime, Orb is bringing Hulu to the living room, free of charge.

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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

Photo courtesy of Orb

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