Source: Sling via Bloomberg
Technology

Slingbox Doubles-Down on Streaming Cable With New M2 Set-Top Box

The future of entertainment seems to have some holes in it. Sling tries to plug them

Since the first Slingbox hit shelves in 2005, the product has done one thing and done it well: It lets you watch your home cable package from anywhere. Now, a decade on, we get the Slingbox M2, and nothing much has changed. With the new box, Sling reaffirms its original vision for TV-watching in a much more digitally connected landscape. But has it fallen behind the times?

The M2 is a $199 set-top box. You just hook it up to your cable box and home Internet, and via the proprietary app you can then watch your home system anywhere in the world. There are no subscriptions, no monthly subscription fees, and no geo-blocking. It solves the "I'm 3,000 miles away from home and can't imagine having to miss the big game" problem. 

The new Slingbox M2 is an incremental improvement over the M1.
The new Slingbox M2 is an incremental improvement over the M1.
Source: Sling via Bloomberg

For being $50 more expensive, the M2 actually isn't that big a change from its predecessor, the M1. For that extra cash, you get unlimited downloads of the Sling app for your phones, tablets, and computers. (They used to cost $15 each, but now you just have to sit through short ads on loading to make up for the cost.) There's also live video setup assistance and a faster new app coming later this year, but for now it's pretty much the same device. And that's fine.

Sling calls its service "cord-stretching," an alternative or complement to the idea of cord cutting. (Cord-cutting is when you move over from bundled cable packages to on-demand subscriptions from providers like Netflix, Hulu, and others.) According to the company, Slingbox owners end up doing three-quarters of their overall TV consumption remotely via the Slingbox, which means users are getting a lot more out of the subscriptions they're already paying for.

The M2 does away with app payments, instead showing short ads before viewing.
The M2 does away with app payments, instead showing short ads before viewing.
Source: Sling via Bloomberg

"I love Slingbox. I've had every version and I've basically sold them to friends," says Dan Rayburn, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan. "The thing about Slingbox is it's easy. ... You can [watch most cable shows online] but not all in one place. Do you want to log in and go to five or 10 different places to get everything? No." 

There are myriad over-the-top (OTT) media sources and just as many devices that can be used to access them. You can catch up on the latest episode of Modern Family on Hulu with a Google Chromecast stick or watch a movie from Netflix via an Apple TV. But there are still large swaths of content that just aren't available without an old-fashioned cable subscription. Live in-market sporting events are the most notable, and even the inclusion of ESPN in Sling's own Sling TV OTT package is limited in this area.

Dish's Sling TV

Dish announced Sling TV at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, which notably included sports network ESPN along with popular channels HGTV, Food Network, and Travel.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

"Slingbox is a stepping-stone technology, like DVRs are," says Anthony Wood, chief executive officer of Roku, which makes set-top boxes that deliver over-the-top streaming content. And while he likes Slingbox and the service it provides, he believes "the trend is going to be that all TV is going to be streamed. It's all going to move to the Internet and you won't be limited to your cable box or just your house."

While it would be tempting to assume some bias here, there's data behind Wood's vision. According to a May 2015 report by Juniper Research, subscriptions to services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime are expected to grow from about 92 million in 2014 to more than 332 million by 2019. Juniper Research specifically notes that it's TV add-ons like Roku's boxes and Google's Chromecast driving this growth.

But with this growth comes diversity—which Rayburn views as an opportunity. The future, he argues, will be less user-friendly because the viewing experience will become less and less unified. "There's such fragmentation in the market, and it's only going to get worse as more platforms and devices come out," he says. "There's no standard in the market, and the people who own the platforms will never get together and create one. Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Google, those guys are never going to work together." The diversity of media file formats, streaming protocols, and rights management is going to create a series of services each with its own content exclusives and delivery systems. Oddly enough, original cable was a pretty streamlined system.

The M2 set-top box costs $199 and is available at www.slingbox.com.

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