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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Apart from a few vertical applications, though, there just isnt widespread enough interest in making your own video portable. There is, however, great interest in making commercial content, such as TV shows and movies, portable, as evidenced by the increasing popularity of, for example, in-car video systems.
The dilemma with Media2Go is that, as a Windows “accessory,” it expects compelling video content to be on the PC, where its not. This is in contrast to portable MP3 players, which took off only after there was already a significant amount of music on the PC—often pirated—that consumers wanted to take with them. Pirated movies and TV shows are available on the Net, but there was never the Napster-fueled free-for-all that would allow many people to build up their collections; and, even with broadband, downloading even a television show is not worth the time for the average consumer. Unlike music, which is often experienced repeatedly, most video content is watched and then discarded or at least shelved (“Rocky Horror” fans notwithstanding).
Thats not to say that mobile video devices wont work without rampant piracy. On the other hand, the video that consumers actually want today on their TVs or VCRs is recordable only via an analog connection, i.e., RCA cables. In addition to adding expense to the players for input and encoding, recording analog video must happen in “real time.” This means that you could take a round-trip flight to the Amazon before transferring a season of “Survivor.” Despite this, the Archos product can capture analog video with an adapter and the 20GB RCA LYRA Audio/Video Jukebox slated for later this year seems to show much promise by also hedging its bets with its 3.5″ LCD. Burning DVDs could also be an option as this process gets faster, but that would place constraints on the size of the players.
The solution is to pop a high-speed digital interface onto a hard-disk-based recorder meant to sit by the television, not the PC. The natural company to bring something like this to market would be TiVo, but the companys paranoia about alienating the studios has kept a “Tivette” on the shelf along with a model with an integrated DVD recorder (or even player). TiVo also blew a chance to add a high-speed digital port that would facilitate this kind of transfer when it shipped the Series 2, which supports only USB 1.1. In contrast, ReplayTV had the much faster IEEE 1394 interface on its first model and had been widely rumored to be developing a portable video player before SonicBlues implosion.
The Game Boy did it for videogames, and the Rio and progeny did it for music. Digital video will go mobile. The only question is, which company will remember that content is king even in the smallest of palaces?
Will you move in for the closeup on mobile video, or is this just another pipe-dream rerun? E-mail me.
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