Do We Want Video-to-Go?

Digital cameras and portable MP3 players have proven a gold mine for some manufacturers in the storage market. But Storage Supersite Editor David Morgenstern wonders if we really want TiVos in our pockets.

Storage has worked its way into every cranny of our lives, moving from the sedentary environment of desktop computers and servers to a wide array of portable devices that deliver content to consumers. Despite the recent success of some content applications such as digital photography and MP3 digital-music players, portable digital video may prove a more difficult sell to customers.

At the same time, its easy to see the lure of such devices to storage and peripheral manufacturers, especially in this economy. Storage is an essential component when it comes to saving and forwarding user data or serving up the content itself.

Last weeks round of corporate financial announcements produced a few examples of the economic potential:

  • SanDisk Corp., a major supplier of flash memory cards, reported net income of $24.9 million, about double the amount predicted by analysts. Revenue was up 88 percent over the year-ago quarter.
  • Apple Computer last week reported a small profit of $14 million. Amid the crush of speculation about Apple buying a stake in Vivendis Universal Music subsidiary and the usual financial reports, the companys iPod music player seems to have been ignored.

    The three bright spots in Apples second-quarter report were its refreshed PowerBook notebook lines; software sales; and a budget line item dubbed Peripherals and Other Hardware, which includes the iPod along with flat-panel displays and other miscellaneous devices such as the Xserve server. For year-to-year growth, this peripherals unit rose 41 percent in the past quarter, no doubt driven by greater iPod sales (and admittedly, a cut in LCD prices). During the previous quarter of holiday sales, analysts said, the iPod achieved 11 percent market share for units sold but accounted for almost 30 percent of the dollars spent on players.

    According to reports, Apple this month is rumored to offer an online music service and higher-capacity players.

The next media platform many expect to join this storage hot list is Microsofts Media 2Go portable video player. In his keynote address at Januarys Consumer Electronics 2003 show, Bill Gates touted this example of the companys Smart Personal Objects Technology. He showed a prototype player with a 4-inch screen and a 20GB hard drive, capable of holding 175 hours of digital video. A cadre of hardware manufacturers signed onto the platform, including Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. Sanyo North America Corp. and ViewSonic Corp.

According to their pitch, these Media 2Go devices will provide a strong personal-video experience. However, the companies may find that consumer expectations and usability requirements for portable video are much different from those of audio.

The buy-in for portable digital audio is strong: MP3 audio offers a number of advantages over previous formats. Its compact and works easily with your computer for cataloging and organizing titles. And most importantly, MP3 players dont suffer the playback glitches of CDs and analog cassettes.

In addition, the user experience with portable digital audio is very good—or can be, depending on the level of compression and the particular headphones used. The cost differences among devices are based mainly on capacity and software. In everyday use, the battery life is long, since theres no need to drive a display.

Can the same really be said for digital video and the forthcoming Media 2Go devices? While it sounds like the video cousin of the iPod, the Media 2Go platform could find a diffident reception next fall when the first units are expected to ship.

Video is a more complex experience that combines both hearing and vision. While a small screen may be adequate for text and some types of informational content display, its very small for viewing video (and other data such as Web pages). Part of the concept here is that well move movies and television shows over to the player and catch up with viewing while sitting on the bus or during a coffee break.

Compare this with the current ad hoc platform for portable video: your notebook computer. And its a pretty good one, with a large, bright screen and plenty of storage capacity as well as easy means to expand capacity with either USB 2.0 or FireWire external hard drives. Of course, battery life is problematic, although mobile processors, low-power drives and improved power management make a difference.

In addition, the notebook computer is a natural fit with DVD, the current, common format for distributing and sharing video. DVD burners are increasingly becoming standard equipment on some classes of desktop machines.

A fundamental question is on the table: Is there really the unmet need for portable digital video that there was for audio?

Will new parents want to share with co-workers and family moving images of the new baby rather than traditional still photos? Will they pass around a video of the budding soccer player in the family? And will they spend between $300 and $1,000 for that privilege?

Or might the rest of us want to spend a similar amount not to have to watch the stuff?

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.