I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate…

When we pulled the plug on cable TV somewhere around 5 years ago, I always said that as soon as there was a viable, legitimate alternative to downloading TV, I would stop using BitTorrent. Yesterday we pulled the plug on BitTorrent: it seems that network-endorsed Internet TV delivery has finally reached critical mass — as long as the telcos don’t succeed in pushing usage-based billing through, and knocking us back 15 years.

Granted, the mechanism isn’t quite what I had hoped. I hoped for a swarm-sourced, to-your-home delivery of portable media files (with DRM if they have to) like BitTorrent provided. But Internet providers are at war with BitTorrent, finding new and creative ways to choke, throttle and block it (even while claiming they’re not) and video providers can’t seem to be convinced to be quite as enlightened as the music industry finally agreed to.

What we have instead is TV content delivered mostly by Flash — possibly the worst, most lossy codec on the web — to your browser, and only your browser. Add to that a few closed-system marketplaces with device support, like Apple TV and Zune for XBox, and finally NetFlix, which although it has a library of often questionable value, at least is determined to let you watch that content on any device with an Internet connection.

No, it’s not ideal. But it mostly works, most TV networks have at least a reasonable commitment to getting their stuff on line at a decent pace, and its finally in Canada — although we haven’t quite escaped from commercial interruptions (which are now slip-streamed awkwardly into our favorite shows in the form of clumsy product placement.)

Here’s what we’re using to get our (legitimately provided, non-gray market) TV fix without paying the cable company. Note that this info is Canada-specific (although some is applicable in the US):

BoxeeBoxee is software (or you can purchase a device dedicated to running the software) that collects web content into a remote-friendly user-interface that looks great on a TV or computer monitor. A wide array of Canadian network content, including many popular American shows, can be found in this slick environment. Quality varies, but is generally Flash/browser based, and therefore not great.

NetFlix – If you haven’t tried NetFlix yet, you probably have no excuse. It works on your PC, your Mac, and any of the current gaming devices you probably already have hooked up to your TV. It also works on iPhone/iPad, Windows Phone and Android. Each version of the app is tuned for the appropriate interface, so its mouse/remote/finger friendly depending on where you’re watching. The content is getting better every week, and it only costs $8 a month. Quality is determined by your connection speed, but can be up-to HD (at a high compression rate.)

In Your Browser – Canada doesn’t have Hulu to pull it all together, but three of our major networks have decent sites where you can watch recent episodes of their best shows right in your browser. Its not the most TV-friendly approach, but a laptop hooked up to the big screen works fine for us in a pinch. Check out Global, CBC and CTV – as well as their properties like Space and Comedy. Quality is good enough for sitcoms, and other content you don’t care too much about.

XBox Zune Marketplace, PlayStation Market, AppleTV – All three have roughly comparable libraries of TV content and movies at roughly comparable prices. Both XBox and PlayStation require you to purchase credits you can use to buy shows, which is clearly designed to make it difficult to determine how much you’re spending. We’ll do a few “season pass” purchases of shows we’d like to see in high quality, out of our entertainment budget. Quality is high, up to HD, depending on what you spend.

I’m watching Boxee with interest, as they’ve begun partnering with other online content providers, like NetFlix. Right now its a bit of a niche, but as it matures, I can see putting a Boxee box on each TV where most people would put a cable box. For now the XBox is our primary device connected to the TVs, since it also plays games and DVDs, and a laptop, or the computer in our room lets us pull the rest of our content.

I’ll admit, its not as slick (or as open, or as extensible, or as interchangeable) a set-up as the “gray” content acquisition mechanism we’ve been running for years. But its a start: the industry is trying to embrace change (albeit slowly and often stupidly) and as a consumer eager to see the old ways die, I’m going to go out and meet them where they’re at, with the hopes that they’ll see that this market is worth responding to.
And if we tell them this is what we want, maybe my kids won’t grow up with an idiot box. Instead they can grow up in a world where information and ideas really can be exchanged freely and easily, where an individual voice can participate in the same marketplace of thought as big media conglomerates…

Do you get it? The Internet, if we fight for it, puts NBC and the Numa Numa guy on the same playing field. For better or worse, this is real democracy of information. The ‘net has to be neutral. Its the only sustainable system we’ve ever invented, and as the world’s population, specialization and technology explode, this fabric has to be protected.

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