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Digital Future | Anti-Social Musings

Digital Future

Nov 09

Another Post About The Death of Cable and the Future of “TV Everywhere”

Many people have written about the death of the cable biz and what will be in store for its future, so I’m certainly not the first to muse. But I find the lack of focus on obvious parallels in related businesses interesting, many of which would be highly instructive historical references to those in power, particularly at the MSOs who¬†are fighting to consider their future.

Once upon a time there was the big bad AT&T, which was later broken up into the RBOCs, otherwise known as the regional Bell operating companies. Each of these RBOCs had the luxury of a near monopoly in the various regions they represented for many years, and during that time delighted in pillaging the coffers of their customers with ever increasing prices, poor service, and the like. Doesn’t this sound familiar so far? Replace RBOC with your local Cable Operator – for me that’s Time Warner Cable.

Over the last ten years there has been a monumental shift, however. As wireless technology improved and moved into the mainstream, customers found wireless to be an excellent alternative to the good ‘ole landline. Then things became even more interesting as VOIP changed the landscape for voice services even further. Suddenly, the RBOCs were faced with competition on three fronts – wireless carriers, cable MSOs who could offer VOIP over their traditionally video networks, and upstart companies like Vonage that had no limitations of competing in markets dominated by the RBOCs.

How does this compare to that traditional cable video industry? Well, it wasn’t long ago that you had only one choice in receiving service, your local MSO. Then the satellite business came along and offered a viable alternative to most customers in the form of DirectTV and Dish Network. Not to mention a couple of upstart MSOs that began trying to compete, with middling success, against the established players, like RCN. So, just like the RBOCs sat comfortably and didn’t evolve their business only to be “caught off-guard” by the massive landscape change (even though it took a decade to play out), the same thing will happen to the cable biz.

Already there are alternatives that are satisfying the early adopters, and as the worlds of Hulu and Sezmi begin to evolve, and as new wireless technologies like WiMax allow the wireless carriers to compete with video delivery services effectively (not to mention MediaFlo and the like), consumers will soon have many more choices and options with how they receive video content.

So what does this mean? Think about it in terms of the wireless biz… Since the service itself has been turned into commodity, they now can only compete mainly on price, features, and hardware. You can jump from one wireless carrier to another simply because you like the phone they carry better than the one offered by your current carrier. So imagine a cable biz that looks similar, where cable companies are forced to innovate on their technology as a core driver to customer acquisition. Where it’s not enough to have that same old cable box you always had, but you want the fancy new “smartbox” – making the parallel between so-called feature phones and smartphones… If the cable companies were smart, they would already be developing these new smartboxes, but to date they are still focused on the wrong things. Perhaps some get it, like EchoStar bringing Sling functionality into their suite of offers, but others are instead still focused on how to keep their captive audience even more captive by leveraging their negotiating powers with the content providers to lock out upstart companies.

On the surface TV Everywhere sounds like a good idea, but in the long run it just opens the floodgates to the cable biz morphing into an industry that will look exactly like the wireless biz of today.

I, for one, look forward to that day.

Oct 09

Internet Video vs the DVR and Cable

Mark Cuban, in a recent post on his blog about Internet Video vs DVR, gets it half right. His point is to reiterate the power of the DVR as a driver to keep consumers interested in traditionally delivered video. But I ask, why?

He says, “Forget the Internet!” But I think he’s missing the point and confusing “internet” as meaning “watching videos on your computer.” Don’t think of the Internet as a collection of web sites. Instead, think of the internet as nothing more than a delivery pipe that doesn’t care about the receiving mechanism, then the question becomes what are the advantages of delivering content via IP technology over the current status quo of cable delivery?

We are already seeing the internet radically change related industries. Think how different gaming is now that there’s XBOX Live. For many people they couldn’t imagine playing games at home by themselves anymore. Why not create XBOX Live-like experiences but for watching TV?

So, I agree with Mark that the Big Media companies still don’t get it. And I agree that Big Media should embrace DVR and Sling-like technologies wholeheartedly. But I think there’s a lot more to it. Programming needs to advance, and the internet provides a better, open platform for doing so.

As I said before in my post about multi-linear storytelling, we need to find ways to allow programmers to create more compelling content. Big Media shouldn’t forget about the internet, they should just stop worrying so much about “web sites” and focus more on how to take advantage of internet technology for real-time delivery of advanced programming tools. Whether it’s social connections and simultaneous viewing, or multi-linear story options, the nature of content delivery changes drastically when you move from a traditional cable simulcast delivery model, to a true multicast delivery model that allows each person watching a program to have a customized viewing experience.

Sep 09

Nonlinear and Multilinear Films and Stories in the Future

Everything we do in digital media is ultimately about either telling a story or walking someone through an experience. When we build digital products, our goal is to create an environment that connects with our users and engages them… The best digital products typically have the right balance between environment, story, and function.

Film has largely remain the same in both form and function for many years. The tools have evolved, and as such have given filmmakers new ways to edit or shoot their stories. But ultimately the stories are always presented in a simulcast, linear form. What happens to storytelling in a truly nonlinear medium?

The term “nonlinear” in writing already has a specific meaning, referring to telling stories out of chronological order – a term I remember well from my film school days. So instead we’ll use the term “multilinear” which has often been used to describe works like the old choose your own adventure books we read as children.

One thing that excites me most is thinking about what the great storytellers will do once they embrace truly multilinear forms of storytelling. We’re starting to see the germs of this in video games, as plot and character become more important elements. But this is still a lean-forward experience.

The landscape of how we consume stories is changing. Video game consoles are just one perfect example of this change – individually addressable boxes connected to not only the internet but potentially peer-to-peer, allowing each viewer of the same program to have a different experience, or to influence someone else’s experience while watching, or even to influence everyone else’s experience. The future cable boxes will have similar capability as they move from the traditional switched cable headends to more interactive and on-demand based systems over time.

It’s time that we, as storytellers, start exploring how the medium itself can influence radically new forms of stories.

Sep 09

Embedded and Emerging – Local Cloud Computing

I’ve long said that computers become a lot more interesting when they’re no longer computers. Computers as we know them are just far too complicated, having been designed to do anything and everything that can be imagined. Unfortunately, the average computer user doesn’t need a device that allows for an infinite number of uses – most users probably have requirements to only use a handful of applications at most, and most of these are what you’d expect: email, web, word processing, image processing, etc. Obviously, this isn’t a new idea. Thin computing, dumb terminals, cloud computing – there is a long history of ideas designed to lighten the computational load on the local host and offload it to another location, thus also allowing for the local host to become far more simple.

So what will the future look like when filled with embedded systems? I’m a big proponent of the “personal wide area network” and “local cloud” computing. I believe in the future you won’t need one device that does everything. Convergence will continue for some time, as people become more entrenched with smartphones, but I believe that in the future there will once again be a divergence and specialization of devices. Of course software platforms are the key, but there’s no reason why simple, specialized hardware with embedded software can’t replace complicated hardware+software combination… I’m reminded of Life Alert – that pendant that the elderly can wear to signal for trouble. Or Nike+. Both simple pieces of hardware that connect to other devices to perform more complicated tasks for specialized purposes.

So what happens when we stop thinking of smartphones just as phones, or PDAs, or gaming devices, but we start thinking about the smartphone as the hub of the personal wide area network? Imagine a range of simple, embedded devices with wireless capabilities that you can choose to accessorize on any ocassion. Perhaps the watch you love. Or glasses with HUDs.

In the future, your trusty iPhone might just act as the “local cloud” for your own PWAN, with each device connecting for specialized functions and UI moving from software to hardware interfaces…