How the New iPod will lead to their self-extinction (eventually!)

From a techie's vantage point, the "new" iPod is a pretty simple hack; just add a video codec to the software mix on the device. 'Course it's essential that the display is good enough, that there is sufficient processing oomph to get decent frame rate, and that the batteries can handle the constant display activity. Storage wasn't ever the issue. Just some software.

[Aside: I was one of the co-founders of PictureTel, where I designed the signal processing hardware architecture. We ended up doing a completely custom bit-sliced designed, and ganged seven large-pizza-box-sized boards to build a complete codec. The whole thing was the size of mini-refrigerator. Twenty years later, it's now "just some software" on a consumer device...]

Lots of folks are going to wag about (lack of) content, screen size, etc. No doubt, all important to making this more than a hack and a real market success.

But I'm going to assume that it will be. What are the consequences? One of them will be the reinforcement on a proprietary distribution network and rights management system. That's a whole other topic. See what Jonathan says about why we have created the Open Media Commons.

Another will be around broadband demand. And that leads to a very interesting longer term question about the best way to connect displays to the Internet. The line of reasoning starts with a simple observation that network bandwidth the (machine synchronizing with) iPod will have a first-order effect on usability. The first-order analysis is pretty simple. The H.264 video codec is running at 750Kbps, plus another 128Kbps of AAC audio. Call it a megabit per second. This is a somewhat low bit rate video-quality-wise (3 or 4Mbps is a better number to keep in your head for DVD-level quality). The saving grace is the relatively small-sized screen (just about CIF).

So, if you have what we call today "broadband" (1.5 to 4 Mbps), then you can do the math. You might get 2x or 3x faster than real time for your download. Meaning, you'll wait 20 minutes to download an hour of video. Kinda best case, actually.

Your experience would be a whole lot better if you had, say, a 25Mbps or 100Mbps network connection. In that case it's just a minute or two for the download. There are many cable and wireline (and fixed wireless) operators who are aiming for this level of residential bandwidth. The build-out is a bit of a leap of faith. Who will possibly need all of that bandwidth? Without a lot of imagination the business case has it filled up with broadcast video content combined with network video-on-demand.

But, you wanna refresh your shiny New iPod with fresh content? Now that will suck down a lot of bandwidth. Let me emphasize "refresh". I, for one, can listen to a piece of music many many times. But with the exception of a few films (say, Dr. Strangelove or the Blues Brothers) once is enough.

Perhaps offline video play is the killer app for online bandwidth?

Perhaps. Though let's think it through some more. The whole reason to store content on a portable player is because of the lumpiness of bandwidth: both it's pervasiveness and it's service level. You want to carry it with you because you want to listen to (or watch) content in places where you don't have good enough networking to playout directly online. But, if you did, I'd claim that the interest in explicitly managing your device, or even taking it around with you --- fashion statement aside --- will go down significantly.

Why? Lots and lots of reasons that I won't belabor here because it gets to be a surprisingly emotional issue. I'll deflect a bit and speculate that for every person who wants to "own" their content and carry it around with them (in the form of personal player or personal computer), there is someone like me who wants a to get access to my stuff no matter where I am or whatever device I pickup or use. That's ownership, too, just more abstract. Call it my Personal Network. I, for one, don't want the bother of syncing stuff or worrying about them getting lost, etc.

An even bigger reason is that pervasive networking gets you access to entire connected world, especially interactive and participative content. The truly interesting stuff will be the result of new realtime communities that emerge and the fusion of services that intermediate them.

I'll bet that we will look back of this era of quasi-networking and wince, "How did we ever live that way?" And the idea of wanting to carry all of your content with you will seem both old-fashioned and rather ridiculous.

Here's my prediction: a successful portable video player (perhaps the iPod is it) will be THE big driver for significant increases in bandwidth and connectivity. Those increases, over time, will ultimately undermine the utility of "carry your stuff with you" personal devices and lead to the next era of real-time connected personal network.


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