In an ideal world, we could watch high definition TV on demand on your PC, any of thousands of programs available at the push of a button. How can we get there?
One approach is to have the PC record directly from broadcast or cable. This has the advantage of using existing TV broadcast streams, but current solutions are difficult to set up and don't usually support HDTV.
We could download shows directly on demand. RealVideo and Windows Media streams are very low quality, but the BBC will soon test BBC on Demand with high quality video streams. Unfortunately, with high quality streams, the file sizes mean that "on demand" may require waiting tens of minutes or more from requesting the feed to being able to watch it.
AtomFilms Hi-Def (using a technology from Maven Networks) downloads short films in high definition resolutions using idle capacity on your broadband connection. It's very cool. And it suggests an alternative approach to TV on the PC.
What if you had a Tivo-like application running on your PC that downloaded TV shows when your network was idle? List the shows you like, watch them on your PC. The shows would be downloaded a few hours after they were broadcast. True, there would be no live TV, but how many Tivo owners would mind losing Live TV?
Where would the downloaded shows come from? One option is a peer-to-peer network where content recorded on Tivos or HTPCs is shared with other clients who can't record live TV. The second would be for the networks to provide Internet broadcasts of their existing broadcast content. With either option, as long as the recorded show includes the original advertising, the networks have an incentive to participate, since more viewers of their broadcast means higher advertising rates and more revenue.
The application could also download content you don't request explicitly, much like Tivo suggestions. Some of this could be other programs that might be of interest; if you watch Simpsons, you might also like Futurama. Some of it might be movie previews or BMW short films, forms of advertising that are useful, interesting, and could be targeted to your interests.
The technology to build this application is out there, a combination of Maven Network's AtomFilms Hi-Def application, Tivo software, and existing broadcast streams. All that remains is for someone to build it.
Update: Emergic.org has an interesting proposal on how to build this system using BitTorrent and RSS.
Update: John Markoff is reporting that that Tivo, Microsoft, and a couple startups are all planning products that download TV over the Internet.
Update: Two of the startups are Akimbo Systems and timeshifTV. Channel selection on both seems to be quite limited, but it's a start.
Update: On a related topic, Texas Instruments is attempting to allow high-definition television over DSL lines. Interesting alternative to cable.
Update: Three months later, a Salon article describes a system using BitTorrent and RSS that allows users to download any show they want automatically to a PC (apparently, about as described on Emergic.org on May 31, 2004). Not legal, I'd assume, but apparently popular and growing rapidly. [Thanks, Niall Kennedy]