IP Rules Convergence
Published on January 8, 2004
Recently I was at “Interaction 03 / A Transatlantic Producers Forum,” a conference in London on Interactive Television organized by the UK BAFTA (The British Academy of Film and Television Arts) and the American Film Institute (AFI). The goal of the event is to exchange knowledge and experiences between the producers and developers of interactive television in the US and in Great Britain. People from the networks, and from the cable and technology industries, were present along with a lot of television folks. The BBC, the major public media force in England, also played a special role. I was there as a guest and had plans to hook up with some panelists from Los Angeles.
Although the conference was interesting, this article is really about something else that happened while I was there. After an entire day of indoor presentations, I went to a U.K. “Starbucks” clone to sit outside, get some fresh air and coffee, and meet with my contact from California. I mentioned the project I was just finishing up—some opening titles for a friend’s movie—and he asked me to show him the layout clips. He flipped open his laptop and demonstrated how he was surfing the Web via WiFi provided by the coffee shop. In a reasonable amount of time I managed to pull up my project intranet and played a couple of Quicktime movies, much to the amusement of the other guests sitting nearby.
The Why of WiFi
Now this incident doesn’t seem so special anymore; wireless access points are in many places, but this development is exactly what makes this so interesting. The most advanced, futuristic dreams of recent years have now been realized; from a grassroots level, many wild projections have become realities. The ability to have video on a PC in remote places, on demand, is a tectonic shift that goes beyond the well-defined borders of traditional media.
In the next 5 to 10 years the broadcasting of TV content (in the US and in Europe) will be in a digital form, making it necessary for the consumer to either purchase a set-top box to receive the signal or to switch to a digital TV completely. Today, some channels are already broadcasting in HD format, enabling a higher picture quality thanks to higher resolution. These streams of high-quality content are not only available on TV sets, but also on numbers of other devices, for example PCs, handhelds or mobile phones.
Not only can the digital broadcast be received with the next generation of consumer products, it can also be stored, manipulated and shared. Despite the new FCC regulation that requires hardware producers to enable the control of content by tags included by the broadcaster (Broadcast Flag), it is, in my opinion, very likely that once this signal is digital, there still will be a way of sharing and repurposing it for the consumer. Already digital video recorders like TIVO allow time shifting of content (recording content for later viewing) and jumping over uninteresting ads or other interstitials. The consumer has been transformed into a user. Because computer networks are international, legislation in one country may not control what is done in another; this causes some threat to the business of TV syndication and films.
The current generation of so-called “media centers” is serving to all home media devices from one big server that is connected via broadband, so that video can be moved from the Web to any screen, or music can be played in every room of a house. It is a very good marketing strategy to give these computers a different name than “PC”, but fundamentally there is no big difference; they are just as much personal computers as the set-top boxes or the next generation of television sets.
In that regard I am always surprised by the difference in price for DVD recorders, in the computer section of my favorite warehouse, as compared with how much more I’d spend in the TV section for a device that does fundamentally the same thing. Inside, they all use similar technology and sometimes even the same hardware components. One can expect that the differences will erode over time just as the users’ fixed concept of a particular device will become blurred. To “do TV” will probably mean to sit comfortably and watch video content from various live or pre-recorded sources. Not only will the difference between broadcast and stored video fade, but so will the distinction between public and private video, thanks, for example, to personal cameras. Besides the television, there will be many other options for watching video content such as a personal video player (PVP) or laptop or mobile phone.
As more and more people adopt broadband, viewers are beginning to exchange more content online, in peer-to-peer style or by Web or email. It is not only commercial content, but also private video, sound and pictures. A good example of this kind of exchange is the activity in the mobile telecommunications sector. The main reason behind a switch, from the current mobile telephone system GSM to the future UMTS/G3, is the ability to have broadband data on a mobile device. Broadband data being, in this case, video, whether commercial television and films or private video like conferencing. While UMTS is now offered as a very expensive upgrade, one can expect that the current price battle in the conventional telephone sector will force the providers to offer flat rates or other consumer-friendly options.
Connecting the Consumer & the Producer
What does all this mean to the producer? What does it mean to the consumer?
“Everything that can be digital, will be digital” is the tagline that Razorfish coined a couple of years ago. Further, one could say “all media that can be digital will be digital”, which would definitely be true for video (including TV, film and home video) and music. Through information and discovery consumers will, in the end, recognize that everything they buy is going to be a (digital) computer file and they will expect control over that content, just as they are accustomed to having control over the files on their PCs. In my opinion there is no need to liberate the consumer or make him an empowered user, it will simply happen by force of market and by the nature of the technology.
Until the producers of content recognize an opportunity for an open and fair dialog with their audience, there will be a time of theft and misled attempts to control the media environment we are entering. It is in the nature of the technology that the users have control over the digital content in their hands. The barrier between the different access technologies is falling now; next will be the erosion of the behavioral patterns. A successful business strategy should be ahead of this curve and offer answers to the rising questions of ownership and rights in this time of lossless duplication and copying.
Besides this challenge, for the producers and owners of original content, there will also be an increased problem of filing and locating the increasing amount of data, a challenge that many are already familiar with today. After having been passed through “virtual hands”, it is hard to put a file into context, to recognize what is in the file without having to open it. A well-grown MP3 collection is a good example of this situation; imagine thousands of songs, all entitled “song 01”. Add video and photographic content to this and you’ll soon be confronted with a mess of different files and versions. To solve this, one needs a strong means of identification—an ID that cannot be stripped from the content.
In this scenario, which becomes increasingly fragmented and digitized, clarity and guidance become much more critical. The Internet is a good example of what might happen to all media, including TV, radio and even print; it all becomes an ocean of information that has no beginning and no end.
Organization can only be achieved through recognition and differentiation. To make this happen, digital objects have to be given a distinctive and consistent form; in other words, they have to be well designed. The changes, which are happening already, are forcing new rules upon consumers, providers and developers; we must take a more holistic point of view if we’re to develop a positive and lucrative approach to this new situation. The barriers of old technology must no longer define the new communication.