Follow the Leader—Yes, It's the Cable Companies
At the moment, Video on Demand only has one champion actually attempting to deliver on its promise of personalized television and that's the large, national cable companies. Time Warner's Cable division introduced a service called iControl two years ago, while Comcast and Cox now offer similar services.
The selling point for iControl is this: you can choose what to watch and when you want to watch it. Throw in the ability to pause, rewind, and control any movie in the same way you do with a DVD, and you've got yourself a great solution.
On the whole, iControl is a good first entry contender. You have a variety of movies to choose from, specialized Cable channels, and a broad range of content. For instance, I watched the entire second season of HBO's Carnivale on iControl's HBO On Demand.
iControl, however, has been plagued by problems that have, I am glad to say, been mainly addresses and resolved. The first major problem was, oddly enough, demand. People liked the service and wanted to use it, but for the first 12-18 months demand typically translated to frustration. On a Friday night it was almost impossible to rent a movie on demand, due to the massive number of people downloading the movie to their cable boxes.
In addition, Time Warner seems to feel that it is OK to arbitrarily send updates to the Cable Set Top boxes during prime time hours. (An update often results in a the cable box shutting down and then taking nearly five minutes to boot back up. The engineers that perform this service must have a sense of humor, because the word "HAL" appears on the Set Top Box, reminding me of the famous computer in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
After two years, I have seen little change in the services offered by iControl. When I was talking with a technician on the phone, she explained that the restrictive growth in content was not their fault, but a result of the complexities of the contracts between companies. This does not explain, however, why there are not additional services such as a web browser, news ticker, or any of the web services we have on our computers. The iControl Set Top Box is a basically a computer with a 400 GB hard drive, input/output devices (my box has both USB and FireWire connectors in addition to video connectors), and an OS. Why not run a version of Linux that can be controlled by the remote and take over the living room?
I am convinced Time Warner will loose control of the market they own. In the world of intelligent mobile devices, any one can be King of Content if they can get it in their customer's hands.