Last week, a new-ish company called Flingo -- don't these tech startups ever get tired of these 1990s cutesy names? -- announced an $8 million dollar investment led by broadcast entrepreneur and Shark Tank judge Mark Cuban. This adds to a previous $7m round raised by the company, which is led by the minds that originally brought you Bit Torrent, the notorious peer-to-peer file sharing service that at last count, has been implicated in over 200,000 copyright infringement suits.
Lest you think that Flingo is some underground group of hipster techno utopians looking to make the power fall, know that their partners already include content providers like Warner Brothers, Fox and Showtime; TV makers like LG, Sony and Samsung; and connectivity suppliers like Netgear and Western Digital.
Flingo's got lots of ideas. The centerpiece is called "syncapps," which the company hopes will catapult it into the forefront of the social TV market. The apps automatically detect what you’re watching, and then enable contextual information to be viewed along with it. Perhaps from other devices, like your iPad. Or perhaps from the TV itself (insert shuddering sound here).
According to an interview published in the MIT Technology Review, Flingo's co-founder and CTO David Harrison says that, "Any mobile app or Web page being used in front of your TV can ask our servers what is on right now. For example, you could go to Google or IMDB and the page would already know what's on the screen. Retailers like Amazon or Wal Mart might want to show you things to buy related to a show, like DVDs, or what people are wearing in it."
In addition to all this, social sites such as Facebook or Twitter can use the service to connect viewers to a TV show's official page or stream. When a user flips channels, or a show ends, the Webpage being viewed knows about it and can instantly update to the new viewing. Hoo boy.
In other words, you're no longer just watching TV. Your TV is watching you -- and ready to serve you customized ads and information as you watch. Good thing TV screen sizes are getting so big; now there'll be plenty of room for all those pop up windows.
One key element separates Flingo from many other startups in the social networking gold rush -- they actually have a business model. Naturally, it's advertiser (excuse me, "sponsor") driven. According to Flingo CEO Ashwin Navin, all of the videos will be sponsored and have a placement. The advertiser gets brand name inventory, media company (like Showtime) gets a percentage, Flingo gets a percentage and the TV maker (like Samsung) gets a percentage.
The inclusion of the TV makers in the revenue share is an interesting play, and lies somewhere between a subsidy and a bribe. Once upon a time, companies like Dolby and THX could entice manufacturers to include their technologies (and pay the requisite licensing fees) by promising them a competitive advantage. These days, you've got to pay the big makers to include your technology in their boxes. The idea of ongoing revenues on a TV purchase is a dream come true for an industry that's watched profit margins dip to single digits.
The question is, do consumers really want a "social" TV? Do you want servers and algorithms -- or your Facebook "friends" for that matter -- knowing what you're watching at any given time? Do you want "smart ads" delivered to your TV while you watch? Is all this beneficial to the end user, or just plain intrusive?
Depends who you ask. Flingo's Navin says, "We think this is the missing piece in the social TV movement: where your TV automatically detects what you’re watching, and lets you easily post to FB or Twitter with one click of the remote."
On the other hand, think of all the "smart" pop up ads, announcements, emails and other digital dross that clogs your web experience every moment of every surf. Now add them to your TV. Are we having fun yet?
According to Flingo, users will have the opportunity to "opt in" to these services on their new TV. This presumably also affords the opportunity to opt out. But how long will it be before such assurances are merely a wink, deep in the fine print of your TV's owner's manual?
TV is about to get a lot more interesting -- for advertisers. For the viewer, the two most important words in the TV watching future may be the same as they are on the web today -- "Skip This."