My readings this week all dealt with the topic of media convergence, a great blurring of lines between televisions and computers toward the end of experiencing some hybrid entertainment device.
Apple is reportedly toying with the idea of distributing its own television set. I got my first personal Macintosh in 1991. While my smug buddies laughed at me for paying for the vanity of a brand, Apple’s aesthetics and consumer service took over the world of personal computing and left their PCs in the dust.
I religiously read the live blogs covering Apple product announcements. There’s a bit of sentimental joy in watching the crowd of tech journalists at the April 2007 announcement of the original iPhone being unable to contain their glee as Steve Jobs repeats the words “an iPod, a phone and an Internet communicator” until it becomes apparent “these are not three separate devices. This is ONE device.”
Nearly seven years later and 250 million units sold, we’re all waiting to see if Apple still has some new tricks up its sleeve with Jobs deceased. Is the iTV next? A quote from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs quotes him as saying he “finally cracked it”, referring to some sort of integrated television.
Apple sells a little device for about $100 called Apple TV that connects into the back of a digital TV and syncs with iCloud and iTunes, but that product launched years ago and is less underwhelming than something I’d expect Jobs to boast about on his deathbed.
There were already MP3 players before the iPod came along, and there were cell phones with games and email on them before the iPhone, but Apple tends to revolutionize by refining things to greater simplicity, thinner design, reduced clutter, etc.
An Apple TV set would need to do more than look good sitting in my living room for me to pay more for it than an existing brand.
Personally, I’d love to see Apple (or someone) develop a device that empowers consumers to get unbundled, with a la carte programming rather than forcing us to get several channels we’ll never watch just to get one we actually want to view.
The cable business model increasingly has holes in it, presumably due to services like Netflix, Hulu and Roku that allow viewers to watch entire seasons of TV shows after paying a base subscription price. Other options, such as Justin.tv, allow people to stream TV channels for free.
Some of these developments are probably the result of economic necessity. When your job has been outsourced to China and you have to cut back on unnecessary expenses, cable TV is at the top of such a list.
My last job was with a small niche television network, so I gained an understanding of how the business works. Essentially, newer channels end up giving their content for free or at a very low price in the hope that distribution will lead to popularity with home viewers so they can then gain enough leverage to get a larger slice of the pie out of the cable or satellite company that brings you your service.
The moment I saw pay-per-view movie channels, I knew the movie rental stores were doomed.
Home Box Office made the jump from cable TV subscriptions to streaming online with the HBO Go app, but those who subscribed to HBO on cable TV were the only ones who could access it. In a middle finger erected to the cable systems who made it possible, HBO indicated this week it might partner with broadband providers to offer the service as an add-on.
Practical new realities must be considered. A February article in the LA Times reported how Nielsen is altering the way it accounts for television viewing habits, including homes that receive shows through video-game consoles or broadband connections. It’s happening because TV execs understand the shifting winds of consumer habits and want a stronger accounting of how popular their content is so they can charge a premium to advertise during it or sell it through iTunes.
As the article states, “Currently, iPads and other tablets are not measured even though the device has become in effect another television screen for many families.”
When you combine this trend with the ability of viewers to record programs to watch at their leisure – and fast forward their DVRs to scan through the advertisements – we see definite challenges for the companies producing our favorite shows (and all of those other channels we never watch).
At some point, it will become hard to know where TV ends and streaming web video begins. Throw in interactive books and magazines, and you find content that reaches you in a variety of ways. If you visit Internet Movie Database, you find not only listings of film credits, but also video trailers, trivia, still photos, news, local show listings, and more.
Video consumption has exploded as a proportion of total US Internet traffic, according to a Cisco estimated based on CAIDA publications cited in a Wired.com article that I read this week.
I would attribute this to what Tim Berners-Lee referred to as “walled off” social networks like Facebook and closed apps that stand alone rather than linking across the web or using a browser for display, along with the continued expansion of broadband capability into ever remote areas, often as wireless service to devices.
Since getting her first iPhone for Christmas, my 11 year old daughter has become obsessed with YouTube to the point where she sits on the couch with her headphones plugged in, occasionally snickering when something she considers amusing plays. A year ago, she would have given me a hard time about watching what I wanted on TV or made me sit through episodes of “SpongeBob Squarepants” or “iCarly.”
Something prevents me from watching YouTube on a smartphone for more than a few minutes, yet she consumes it for hours – especially if she’s given the option of watching it on Apple TV or on her laptop. Perhaps it is generational because she was four when YouTube launched, and I still associate it with an annoying buffer bar from slow connections of the past.
Or maybe there’s just a lot more quality on YouTube these days as users get more savvy about creating videos and companies produce stuff especially for the website. The quest to create a viral video is the modern Gold Rush. The web represents the easiest opportunity for this generation to become famous, so making enough of a splash to collect hundreds of thousands of fans online is the new Manifest Destiny.
My daughter asks me to teach her how to create better production values in her YouTube videos because she wants to imitate the things she admires. Besides, I probably owe it to myself to explore YouTube in a lot more depth than I have done in the past, if only so I don’t catch myself wondering why I missed the boat.
At her age, I fantasized about creating my own TV show on local access television before realizing it would be as ridiculous as “Wayne’s World” without the funny. The technological barriers to creating something that looks decent and distributing it to a massive audience are minimal these days. And who needs fake reality TV when reality filmed can be pretty compelling?
A phone that only makes calls seems primitive to my child. A wristwatch than doesn’t work like a television or remotely operate by voice command my flying car or any of the appliances in the home will probably seem prehistoric to my future grandchild. By then, we’ll probably achieve thought command.
The same way my mother tells the fascinating account of watching her first TV set, I’ll seem like a caveman recounting how I used to get 13 channels of TV, and we got our newscast at a fixed time of day from some dinosaurs called CBS, ABC or NBC.
Part of why I feel so passionate about the topic of emerging media is a craving to be there and aware enough to recognize when the next big thing is introduced and a page turned. The future is endlessly intriguing. Change flows like gravity toward the path of least resistance, i.e., the greatest innovation that offers the most choice and, to quote Steve Jobs, “just works.”
So, where is it all headed? I can offer an educated guess.
Ours seems like a landscape ripe for someone (perhaps Apple?) to combine simplicity with choice, consolidating media platforms so that we get the next generation entertainment system, one that is no longer tied to the living room, but portable and accessible anytime, anywhere, on any device.
I doubt Samsung or Google would have their awesome smartphones today if not for Apple scorching the marketplace with the original iPhone. Now let’s see if the next revolution is not just some new gadget but a merging of content that’s available now only through different media channels.