The digital home

For a blog originally intended to house my rants and raves about television post production trends and tool, a lot of space has been devoted IPTV and podcasting. For IPTV to reach its potential, the digital home must become a reality. Different vendors have distinctly different visions of such a future. Microsoft envisions its Windows Media Center as the hub of the 21st century living room. Apple expects Front Row to supplant Netflix, Blockbuster, and much of the broadcast and cable grid. Akimbo and Dave are peddling proprietary set top boxes. Brightcove wants to supply the brains. And of course Yahoo! and Google expect a place on the couch. Sony, like Apple, sells both hard and soft wares (and has trouble playing well with others).

How it will all play out is anyone’s guess. When it will play out should be the bigger concern. My love affair with the video iPod stems from the role I see for it as the catalyst of the digital revolution in the home. Folks aren’t clamoring for IPTV and STBs. Because it’s not about technology. It’s TV. And to most Americans TV is just fine the way it is. That’s where the iPod comes in. Sitting in the living room or the dorm room in its cute little dock next to the TV, it provides a sleek, sexy, and fun window to the future. Downloadable content for TV can be pretty cool. Niche content that isn’t economically viable to distribute over broadcast and cable can be delivered point-to-point via IP. Some people will want to see the Numa Numa Dance on the big screen. (Sadly, many first generation video podcasts will aspire to be the next Numa, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Interestingly, Apple finds itself perilously close the position it was in back in ’84 – introducing the masses a new, totally great technology, only to find itself marginalized in the future because it insists on keeping its proprietary systems closed. iTunes won’t work with other MP3 players. The iPod can’t be used to subscribe to other services. And Front Row won’t catalog Windows Media. Plus ça change…

Apple’s approach is great when launching a new technology. No chicken and egg. The hardware manufacturer isn’t waiting for content to be available, and the distributor isn’t waiting for the gadget to reach critical mass. If you don’t think this is a huge deal think about how long it took for HDTV to take off, why interactive TV never took off, and why widespread mobile phone video looks like a pipe dream.

But over the long haul monopoly inevitably stifles innovation. If one company supplies the hardware and software, distributes the content, and manages the rights to that content, what’s left for others? Ask HP. It decided that distributing iPods wasn’t worth its effort. There’s no motivation to form an alliance with such a vendor because it controls your profit potential. Instead others will copy pieces of the formula and form alliances with each other. HP figured that was a more reasonable approach. It might take longer to get to market, but once there, there will be real opportunities to make money. And then after a couple of product cycles, the new alliance will surpass the original innovator because they are in a competitive environment. It’s costs will be lower and its products better suited for the market.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple has a plan to avoid this fate, but I would be surprised if it succeeds without opening up its proprietary universe. It’s creating a lot of competitors where it could be creating collaborators. Here’s some free advice for Apple. Open your system to the Sony PlayStation platform. Both the iPod and the PSP use the H.264 codec for video. They were meant to play together.

The Xbox is Microsoft’s best shot at becoming the master of the digital home. Wirelessly networked to a Media Center PC. It can be the ultimate IPTV STB. Akimbo, Dave, and Brightcove should redesign their systems around the Xbox. It’s the quickest way to penetrate the market. Brightcove’s business model with Xbox engineering? Apple may meet its match sooner than it expects.

Post script: Texas Instruments has developed an intersting, though immodestly named, technology. DaVinci is a tool box for developers. The basic idea is to have a single suite of developer tools work with a wide variety of video formats and codecs. Theoretically a video jukebox using DaVinci chips and code would be able to switch between WM9 and MPEG-4 H.264 seamlessly. Pretty cool. The white papers are well written – even to a guy who thinks ASICs are something one wears to the gym. Read beyond the paranoid worldview that has consumers watching their home surveillance cams on the living room telly and the technology is compelling.

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