PC Mag Editor not happy about Sling Encryption

From Stu, one of our best customers and sources of information:

Jim Louderback, the editor of PC Mag, made a mention that his favorite add-on no longer works. He was referring to your Slingbox recorder. This was done on his podcast – What’s New Now? (July 21)

Looks like Sling is going to be facing more competition – not just from Sony’s LocationFree, but also new companies called HAVA and AirEpoch. It’s going to be hard to maintain the encryption policy, especially if the competition is open to recording.

I predict that there will be a permanent recording solution for Slingbox devices by January 1, 2007. Or even earlier if they want to HAVA good Christmas season.

Fight For Your Right to Record

I posted this on the Sling Community forum, and liked it so much, I decided to share it with you. It’s in response to why it’s such a big deal about Sling encrypting their stream. I feel it expresses what Applian stands for as a company really well.

Why should anyone care? It’s important to fight for your right to make recordings for your personal use. If you have a TiVo, imagine a world without it. Or what if ripping MP3s from a CD became illegal? Every so often, a piece of horrible legislation is proposed to curb your personal recording rights, and so far, none have passed. Even if you don’t own At-Large Recorder, you have a vested interest in retaining the status quo vis a vis your rights to record.

So far nobody’s been able to come up with a good law-based explanation why being able to record your Sling stream is illegal, or puts Sling in any legal risk. Granted there is the desire for Sling not to do more to rock the boat with the Content Owners, but recording and place-shifting are really two distinct, separate issues.
You’re already paying for your Cable or Satellite TV. You can record it via TiVo or your PC and copy it to your iPod. You should be able to do the same with your Sling stream.

Replay Converter 2.0

Our new video and audio file format conversion software Replay Converter 2.0 was released today, with more support for iPod, FLV videos (like YouTube), more control over conversion settings, and more conversion options. It’s a free update for any current Replay Converter user.

Besides being really easy to use, Replay Converter stands out for two reasons:

1. Replay Converter has the most conversion options for iPod users.
2. Replay Converter makes it easy to convert FLV files from YouTube, Google Video and other popular video download sites.

Here’s what’s new in the update. Not yet a customer? Try a free demo here!

Sling Encryption & At-Large Recorder Solution

From Applian’s standpoint, here’s the solution to the SlingBox encryption and At-Large Recorder compatibility issue:
It would be great if SlingPlayer could play an encrypted feed that At-Large Recorder captures. SlingPlayer would just need to recognize a specific file extension to launch, which At-Large Recorder could easily save files with.
In this way, customers could record, and Sling stays protected.
How about it Sling?
(Cross Posted at SlingCommunity.com)

The Sling Encryption Mystery

There’s quite a thread going on at the Sling Community forum regarding Sling’s new encryption “feature” and its impact on At-Large Recorder. Jeremy T from Sling is doing his best to answer the critics, and has made his third post.
The money quote (emphasis mine):

Finally, I’ve tried to be clear that there are issues regarding this topic that I simply cannot discuss. Some of the other users in this thread have guessed at them, and I appreciate those posts. In my last comment I asked readers to sit back and really think about our motivation here. You think we are motivated to try to “screw third parties”? I already stated we plan to have some form of API/SDK coming out down the road. You really think that we want to “screw Slingbox owners”? Why on Earth would we want to do that??

I guess Jeremy didn’t really make it clear that there were other motivators to the decision. Web users, and especially early adopters like those who buy Slingbox devices, are very sophisticated, and the attempt to say encrypting the stream to “protect users privacy” didn’t really make sense to anybody. Likewise with the protecting “content owners” reason. He probably would have been better off saying “I simply cannot discuss” like he finally did in the third post. While nobody likes that excuse, they can respect it at least. I respect it.

The fact that Sling cannot discuss the rationale for the decision makes for an entertaining game of speculation. The Sling Community forum participants certainly have a lot of theories. Since I have no inside knowledge, I get to speculate, too!
Sling has received a huge amount of investment money – $55 million or so. One of the investors is EchoStar. The content people are always paranoid about these new technologies (TiVo has investments from the major networks), and investing in these companies is a good way to keep the technologies under control. One theory is that as a condition for the investment, Sling agreed to ensure the stream couldn’t be redirected. They probably didn’t think it could be done until At-Large Recorder appeared, hence the need to quickly add encryption, and the fact that this was “always on the product roadmap” as Jeremy suggests.

This also keeps them out of possible legal trouble with HBO, MLB any anyone else concerned with geographic rebroadcast issues.

Sling has taken great care to ensure the streams couldn’t be “split” and beamed to several people at once. Theoretically, if the stream can be recorded, it can be retransmitted to several people at once. This breaks the legal protections they have put in place.

I don’t think the “recording” aspect is the cause for the consternation. The way At-Large Recorder works, you can’t really retransmit in real time anyway, as the file isn’t viewable until recording ends.

Anyway, that’s MY theory. We’ll probably never know.

Sling is in a bit of a pickle, in that they can’t do anything and everything to make their product the best it can be. It would be great is they could be more open about the reasons behind the decision, but this may leave them open to legal trouble by recognizing any legal weaknesses publicly, so it’ll likely remain a secret. I believe that if Jeremy T could say more he would – he’s clearly (and rightfully) a little upset about being beaten up on the Sling forums.

Sling and Applian are a little similar, in that we both are pushing the envelope of what people can do with their media. Sometimes we can’t market our products the way we’d like either. Fortunately, people are still able to find us when they want the best tools for recording online video, music or radio, and they tell their friends.

If Sling wants to work with us to make a recording solution that doesn’t put them in legal jeopardy, that would be terrific. It would be great for Sling, and their users. Or maybe products like HAVA and others will add this capability, and they’ll just open it up, as it will cease to be an issue if everybody is doing it. I hope we’ll be able to come up with a solution soon.

Slinging in the Rain (of criticism)

Sling is trying to be more out in the open about the Encryption controversy in their latest firmware. “Jeremy T” from Sling gave this clarification:

I’ve noticed a few posts wondering why we encrypted the stream (and lots of assumptions, both good and bad), and I realized I should’ve explained when we posted the build. We’ve actually been planning to enable encryption for quite some time, this just happened to be the build in which it went live.
Our goal with the Slingbox is to have a device that not only offers consumers new freedom in their ability to placeshift their content, but also a product that protects the rights of the content owners and creators as a whole. Additionally, we feel protecting the stream also helps secure your rights and privacy as a consumer. To this end, enhancing SlingStream protection has been on our roadmap for quite some time.
Unfortunately, it’s clear that the Applian At-Large Recorder has gotten caught in the middle of this. As a small company, we haven’t had the resources to properly support third-party developers at present, although it is our goal to eventually have an API or SDK for third-parties to use. If you consider the numerous ongoing software developments we have at Sling (Windows, OSX, Windows Mobile, other platforms, etc), we have to pick and choose where our engineering efforts go extremely carefully, and while we have very ambitious goals, we still have a lot of realities to deal with!
On a technical note, a few people have surmised that the encrypted stream either increases CPU overhead or decreases stream quality. We have done quite a lot of testing and have not seen these negative results. Our tests show the encrypted stream in the new beta firmware performing side-by-side with the unencrypted stream in the current firmware with no difference. Don’t forget: if you are not doing exact side-by-side comparisons, no two streams are exactly alike!
I hope this helps clear up the issue. I welcome any feedback and comments.


Here’s our response:

Hi Jeremy –
Thanks for the explanation, and your willingness to address the issue in the open. Let’s break it down. You said:
Our goal with the Slingbox is to have a device that not only offers consumers new freedom in their ability to placeshift their content, but also a product that protects the rights of the content owners and creators as a whole.
Ummm… ever hear of TiVo?
Additionally, we feel protecting the stream also helps secure your rights and privacy as a consumer. To this end, enhancing SlingStream protection has been on our roadmap for quite some time.
If that’s really an issue, just make it a selectable option like other customers have suggested.
I challenge you to give me the name of ONE customer who requested encryption for “privacy”. Or do a forum search for anybody who has requested this feature. Keyword searches for “encryption” or “privacy” come up empty.

As a small company, we haven’t had the resources to properly support third-party developers at present.

No, but you went out of your way to un-support a third party developer.
Jeremy, I look forward to continuing the dialog with you. Feel free to respond on the Applian blog.
Best Regards,
Bill Dettering
Applian Technologies Inc.
www.applian.com

Of course, reader comments are welcome, too. I especially am looking for ANYONE who’s in support of the encryption.

Slung Out To Dry

Most hardware companies are delighted when a third party develops a complementary product for their platform. Apple, Microsoft, and many other companies have an active ISV (Independent Software Developer) recruitment effort, as they realize the benefits of others working on their behalf (for free) to make their products better.

When we developed our SlingBox device recording product, we kind of expected the same red carpet treatment. The SlingBox device is a terrific piece of hardware that attaches to your TV, and lets you watch it remotely from anywhere with a high speed internet connection. Sony has a competing product called LocationFree, and if I were competing with Sony, I’d want to do everything possible to make my product stand out.

Sling’s reaction was not what we expected. First of all, they had an issue with the product name, as it used the letters “sling” in it. Kind of a trademark deal. Our conversation went something like this:

Us: “Can we license the “Sling” part, and pay you a royalty on each copy sold.”
Sling: “No.”
Us: OK, how about changing the name to “SBox Recorder.”
Sling: “too close.”
Us: “Hmmm… how about “S Recorder. ”
“Still too close.”
“OK, we’ll call it “Blake’s recorder” or something. ” (Blake is the CEO).
Long pause. “Well, I guess that would be OK.”
Sling: “Your trade-dress is too much like our product – you need to change it, too.” (Our UI was red and grey, in the shape of a Slingbox device.)
Us: “OK – we’ll change the shape to a parallelogram.”
Sling: “No – the angles would be similar.”
Us: “You’re kidding…. OK – we’ll make it a rounded rectangle then.”
Sling: “You’ll have to change the colors, too. Don’t use either red or grey.”
Us: “You’re messing with me now.”
Sling: “No – we need to strongly defend our trademark and trade dress.” (At this point, it was Sling’s IP lawyer in this exchange. She was very polite, and was just doing her job. It’s still pretty ludicrous.)
Us: “bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb”

Anyway, we went ahead and complied with their requests, and came out with At-Large Recorder. Definitely no trademark issues there. I thought we were in the clear and good to go. Today we learn Sling is encrypting their stream transmission, thereby rendering our product inoperable in its present form.

I actually talked with Blake – Sling’s CEO – when we first launched and he was very cordial, although slightly annoyed. Said something about “getting a phone call” about our product. And brought up the trademark issues. That was about it.

So – what’s the deal?

Theory #1: Sling is pushing into uncharted legal territory – removing the geographical limitations on TV viewing isn’t taken very well by Major League Baseball, to name one. Anything they can do to reduce their legal risks may be a part of the strategy.

Theory #2: Sling is going to produce their own recording add-on.

Theory #3: Don’t know. Leave a comment and tell me your theory. Sling representatives are particularly welcome to respond.

Update:
Sling responds, and we dig deeper.

Update #2:
Digg this story.