Streaming content is not the "next" big thing, because it's already here. Movies, music videos, online radio broadcasts and podcasts are just a few of the many choices available to anyone with a fast Internet connection and the right hardware.
And this being the age of high-definition TV, smart content providers are making it easier to send that streamed content to your living room. Why watch "Inception" on a laptop or smart phone if you can kick back and enjoy the craziness on the big screen?
Streaming content is a consumer market that will only grow. Roku, manufacturer of set-top boxes that allow viewers to watch streaming content on their TVs, entered 2011 having sold its one-millionth device.
Over at Major League Baseball, its MLB.TV is a streaming subscription service that provides rabid pro baseball fans with access to regular-season games throughout the country, as well as extras such as spring training reports. Officials report more than 1 billion videos have been viewed.
From riots in Libya to YouTube videos of dancing cats to Justin Bieber haircut photos, if it's on a computer, it usually can be on your TV.
If television truly is an opiate for the masses, consider streaming content the latest designer drug.
Until cable arrived in the mid-1970s, the average viewer had his choice of the Big Three networks, perhaps a public or independent station or two. Today, of course, cable and satellite options number in the hundreds, but even that business model could be on the way out.
Consider Netflix, which has become the 800-pound gorilla of streaming services. Its founders made some crucial decisions early on, which is why it's still thriving and companies such as Blockbuster and Hollywood Video are not.
"The company was named 'Netflix' in 1996, not 'DVDs-by-mail,' because the founders knew Internet delivery would be ubiquitous," said spokesman Steve Swasey.
"The key point for Netflix, which had been planning for streaming for years, was in 2005. We saw YouTube and right there, that 'push/play' concept, it changed our model a little bit.
"Originally, we had looked at downloading."
With more than 20 million subscribers in the United States and Canada, Netflix (www.netflix.com) plans to announce by the end of the year that it will cross other borders. For now, the service can be accessed through more than 200 devices, including Internet-ready televisions, smart phones, laptops, game consoles and set-top boxes.
It continues to offer the DVD-by-mail part, but two-thirds of current subscribers are strictly into streaming. Basic service begins at $7.99 a month.
On Tuesday, online retail giant Amazon.com announced the immediate availability of streaming services included in its $79-per-year Amazon Prime shipping program.
Five thousand movies and television shows are available for viewing, including older content from Sony Pictures and Warner Bros. libraries
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos' company already had downloadable content for sale and rental, but his announcement yesterday gives Netflix its biggest challenge to date.
Links from Amazon Prime take you to pages where you can buy that Internet-ready television or set-top Boxee Box.
Hulu, the popular free online service featuring entertainment content new and archived, has launched Hulu Plus, a $7.99-a-month service that was made possible through a content agreement with Viacom, which will provide Comedy Central favorites such as "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" as well as shows from others such as VH1 and MTV.
Both Hulu (www.hulu.com) and Hulu Plus, which launched last November, are ad-supported. Netflix and Amazon Prime are not.
Jason Kilar, Hulu CEO, recently put forth a "Hulu team" mission statement that predicted "half a billion [dollars] in total revenues (advertising and subscription combined) in 2011, up from $263 million in 2010 ... ."
This dual revenue stream works, according to the statement, because subscribers are willing to accept a "modest" amount of very viewer-specific advertising. Another priority for Hulu Plus, which has a million subscribers and is growing quickly: viewers want watching TV to be more convenient, with programming available 24/7 instead of just Tuesday nights at 9.
The statement also predicted that the rise in use of social media among viewers "is nothing short of a game-changer for content creators, owners and distributors" because "consumers now also have the power to immediately tank a bad series, given how fast and broad consumer sentiment is disseminated."
Another service, Vudu, doesn't work by subscription, instead offering content item by item. There are "$2 for 2 nights" specials and new releases beginning at $3.99. The Vudu website (www.vudu.com) claims the company has the "world's largest" HD library.
TiVo, the digital recording service whose name became synonymous with DVRing, is capable of streaming content on your television. But for the most part, there are three main, other hardware options: set-top boxes that do not store content, game consoles and Internet-ready TVs.
Wireless or wired, be certain you have sufficient bandwidth to keep movies running without interruption. The best-looking 1080p video in the world is going to be a big disappointment if it keeps sputtering or cutting out.
Google TV, Apple TV, Veebeam, Roku, Logitech Revue with Google TV, Boxee Box by D-Link -- how to choose? The good news is, almost any of the popular set-top devices will do a decent job. It's the extras and ease of use level that sets them apart. They connect to your set via HDMI, composite A/V cables or USB.
Here is a quick sampling:
Roku offers three models ranging in price from $60 to $100, the top-of-the-line is the 1080p XD/S. It has the addition of USB connectivity to play stored music, video or photos.
Like most of these set-tops, it is fairly small and unobtrusive, less that 5 inches wide on each side, and less than 1 inch tall.
A PG staffer's tryout with the basic Roku HD model, using Verizon Internet (not FIOS) was satisfactory.
Like most Apple products, the ATV ($99) is small, sleek and bare-bones. The unit is 3.9 inches on each side, .9 inches high. The back sports just enough room for a power cable, HDMI, Ethernet port, optical audio connection and a mini-USB port.
Like with the Roku, setup was simple and on-screen choices were clear. Among the Internet options were Netflix, Flickr, Internet radio and video podcasts. This being Apple, ATV also connects to your Mobile Me account but even more cool is something called Air Play.
Sync your Apple device such as a laptop or iPhone, and choose something from iTunes. An Air Play icon appears. Tap the icon, and the video/movie/song/whatever begins playing on the television.
The 720p picture was surprisingly crisp. Older video and YouTube-quality stuff that wasn't shot at high resolution to begin with, is not going to match broadcast levels of clarity.
But for Netflix content running through Comcast's Xfinity broadband, the execution was flawless. Same could not be said for use of the ultra-simple remote, which has to negotiate a non-QWERTY keyboard onscreen. Way too easy to click when you didn't mean to.
Logitech Revue ($299) takes advantage of Google TV apps, including Twitter, NBA Game Time and CNBC, through the Android market.
Streaming options include Netflix, Pandora and Logitech Video HD, with access to Facebook and Twitter. The Logitech Revue comes with a little QWERTY keyboard.
The Boxee Box ($199) comes with a two-sided remote. One side is a tiny keyboard, but you can always use your Android or iPhone as a remote should that prove cumbersome.
Boxee has a lot of versatility (there's even an SD card slot) but one has to question its physical design. It's a cube, roughly 4.5 inches on each side, that gives the impression it's sinking into your shelf. Cool, but bulky if you're short on space.
As for consoles -- be it PS3, Nintendo Wii or XBox360, streaming content is easier than gaming. Many links to services can be accessed through the on-screen menu or through the console's online store.
Then there are the new TVs. Sony, LG, Samsung, Toshiba and Sharp are among the manufacturers providing Internet-enabled sets. But expect to pay more for these HDTVs.
Consumers tired of high cable prices have begun to talk of a "cord-cutter" movement. Netflix's Mr. Swasey compared cable versus streaming to VHS tape and Beta, all those years ago.
"VHS beat out Beta, then VHS had a long, 30-year life. Same with 8-tracks and cassettes ... .
"We think it [streaming] will be the way to go. It's been so easy and so embraced by consumers, it becomes so much a part of your life."
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478.