This past week, online media service Hulu offered its first public beta version of Hulu Desktop, which allows you to access content from the service via a native Windows application. Since its initial release in 2008, Hulu has offered web-based access to this content. So what benefits does the native Windows app provide? Let's take a look.
Hulu is a joint venture of NBC Universal, News Corp., and Providence Equity Partners and is one of the leading web-based sources for legal TV show content. (The service also provides access to some movies and other video content.) The service offers shows from FOX, NBC Universal, Comedy Central, Lionsgate, MGM, MTV Networks, National Geographic, Paramount, PBS, Sony Pictures Television, Warner Bros. and others. This includes current hit shows like The Simpsons, 30 Rock, and The Office, as well as TV classics (or, at least older shows) like Married .... With Children and Adam-12.
The Hulu web interface is notably good, with different quality levels, full-screen capabilities, and, on some selected new content, closed captioning. Because it's a legal source of content, TV shows are typically offered with limited commercial interruptions. You cannot download content from Hulu; instead it is streamed over the Internet. It requires Adobe Flash.
Hulu on the web.
Because of the success of Hulu, various third parties have worked to bring Hulu content to more conventional media center environments. No serious contenders have ever emerged however, and you cannot access Hulu from first-rate media environments like Windows Media Center or the Apple TV. While techy-enthusiast environments like Boxee and Plex have gotten Hulu add-ons, Hulu has typically blocked these attempts, leading to speculation that it would make its own living room play.
Hulu Desktop for Windows appears to be the first step in this strategy. In its current form, it works much like the standard web application, but with an important difference. You can control Hulu Desktop with a Windows Media Center or Apple TV remote, making it slightly more accessible as a living room-type media solution. That said, you'd need to connect your computer to your TV for the best experience, and even then the effect isn't particularly seamless as you'd have to close down Windows Media Center (or whatever other home theater application you're using) and run Hulu Desktop separately.
Hulu Desktop for Windows.
Beyond remote control compatibility, Hulu Desktop works much like its web-based cousin: Video is still streamed over the Internet and not downloaded to your hard drive, so you can't watch content while offline. And you still have to watch commercials.
There's a lot going on in online video right now, but there's no one solution that does it all. Ideally, you'd be able to access Hulu content directly from Windows Media Center, Apple TV, Roku Digital Video Player, TiVo, or any number of other mature living room-based digital media solutions. Ultimately, Hulu Desktop just adds a single minor convenience that will only be of interest to a small percentage of users. For this solution to become more broadly useful, it needs to move beyond the confines of the PC. It's fine for what it is, but it's not a game changer.