Making the Multiplex Mobile

Portable video players are a good idea, according to Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin, but there's a dilemma in getting the right content onto them.

Yesterday, Storage Supersite Editor David Morgensterns column questioned consumers demand for mobile digital video. He has good reason to be skeptical: While Apple Computers iPod was a natural digital successor to the Sony Walkman, the market for portable video really has no strong precedent. Sure, there have been portable televisions for decades, but they have been hamstrung by spotty broadcast reception. More recently, portable DVD players have arrived at prices and form factors that make them tough to justify to laptop users, and have thus been relegated to that dark corner of U.S. consumer video located between WebTV and high-definition videotape recorders.

Indeed, even TiVo, which has inspired "cult-like" gatherings, has attracted fewer than 1 million users in the four years of its availability. Tivos closest competitor, ReplayTV, is now heading to its third home after its last parent—SonicBlue —filed for bankruptcy. Finally, the dramatic price decline in standalone DVD recorders, while potentially a great complement to companies like Panasonic that have the fortitude to combine one with a hard disk-based recorder, could also spell trouble for the category in the long term. After all, do consumers really need two devices to bring their VCRs into the digital age?

Mobile video has a long history in computing beyond the laptop. The most erudite of Apple trivia buffs may remember Newtons stillborn cousin, code-named Sweet Pea, which was to be a CD-based mobile multimedia player. In the modern era, PocketPC Films has so tightly squeezed such films as "Natural Born Killers" and "The Big Easy" to get them onto iPaqs and now even Game Boys that the CDs on which they ship should be covered with the same authentic butter-flavored topping they use in the theaters. For television, SnapStream, the software-based digital video recorder for Windows, facilitates transferring recordings to PocketPCs by creating scaled-down versions of its records.

Mobile video has also taken on a new dimension in the wireless arena. As Rob Glaser points out in a recent interview, carriers are posturing for the packets that mobile and streaming media will generate. Video is often hailed as the holy grail of 3G networks, but for the foreseeable future, the only application that will be practical is short clips.

While the latest document on its site describing the platform is dated April 1, Microsofts Media2Go platform is no joke. The idea is to expand what the iPod did for music to pictures and video. Unfortunately, the current prototypes are more like the size of the bulky and disappointing Rio Riot than the svelte iPod. In Microsofts strategic worldview, Media2Go is to Windows XP Media Center what PocketPC was to Outlook – a way to take the fruits of Windows inherent formats and capture capabilities portable.

David notes that video is a logical next step for mobile media and points out some of the hardware challenges in creating a portable video player. Indeed, the portable video player is already here in Archos Media Jukebox, which, despite its winning the Best of CES Award in January, has a terrible display that is as dim as it is diminutive. However, LCDs are bound to improve and get cheaper, so its only a matter of time before a portable video player becomes affordable. The OQO miniature PC, if it ever ships, could be a good platform for watching mobile video.

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