Hulu, the popular Web site for streaming TV shows with limited commercials, has famously blocked mobile phones from accessing its free content. This is an odd move in the face of the growing number of companies offering on-demand downloads for a price. Bitbop is the latest mobile app taking a stab at filling Hulu's void.
On Wednesday morning, Bitbop, previously in closed beta testing, becomes available for all BlackBerry phones in the U.S., with Android and other mobile platforms to follow.
Now, before you get too excited about the prospect of Hulu on your BlackBerry smartphone, we've got to level with you. Bitbop isn't exactly Hulu, and it definitely isn't free. However, it brings Hulu-like elements to the mobile platform that could catch on like wildfire if the winds are right.
In Bitbop, you'll choose from the content you can search or browse--mostly TV shows at this point--and add it to your queue, Netflix-style. There they'll sit until you're ready to either stream or download them. You can do both over either Wi-Fi or 3G data speeds.
TV shows downloaded quickly and take up about 50MB per 30 minute episode. They played smoothly and with fairly high quality on our BlackBerry Bold 9700. Quality and bitrate will vary depending on your phone's bandwidth, but Bitbop quoted us a bitrate range of 120-500KB.
TV shows come to Bitbop's catalog from over 30 broadcast partners and include shows like "American Dad," "Glee," "CSI," "30 Rock," and "Chopped." A $9.99 monthly subscription gets you unlimited video streams and downloads, and in addition the shows play back to you commercial-free. Movies are planned for down the line.
Performance-wise, we tripped over a few hurdles during our beta testing, including some browsing errors and network interruptions that made it difficult to find content. We also noticed some lagging in the app's performance, and offer some design adjustments to the team, like integrating the default BlackBerry menu system, and improving navigation in the playback window. However, Bitbop performed well in our two most important real-world tests--at the gym and on the train--with playback on downloaded TV episodes running through without a hitch.
But what about Hulu?
Still, we can't help feeling that Bitbop is missing an opportunity to outplay Hulu at its own game by supplying a tiered option--one to go premium with an all-you-can eat monthly plan and the other to set up free streaming (and now downloads) with commercials. After all, TV-watchers are trained to suffer through commercials, and the Hulu generation likewise expects it. If Bitbop doesn't seize the moment, it's inevitable that someone else will, and grab the early market share.
Right now Bitbop beta is available on select BlackBerry smartphones, but as we mentioned, the company plans to release versions for Android and iPhone "later this summer," with Android potentially coming before the end of August. Bitbop is offering a free trial for the Bold 9000, Bold 9700, Curve 8900, and Tour 9630. Get started by pointing the mobile browser to m.bitbop.com.