Video iPod arrived today

Oddly FedEx didn’t make me sign for it. In fact the driver left it on my front step. Considering I had to sign for the $17 cable that arrived last week, and the $25 remote a few days after that, it seemed odd the $300 iPod was left on the stoop. So be it.

I had some video material waiting for it. I had purchased a U2 music video from iTunes and also compressed some client material and a bunch of stuff I captured from my DVR. Overall I was pleasantly surprised by the user experience viewing video on the iPod. The image looked much better than I expected a 2.5″ image to look. The real test was hooking the iPod up to an NTSC monitor. Some had posited that the 320×240 image would look like VHS because due to the similar vertical resolution. It didn’t quite get there. The was blockier, but still acceptable for many uses. As expected full screen images shot with a locked down camera looked better than handheld material.

Cruising around the video section of the iTunes store I happened upon a Sub-Zero/Wolf cooking series. In iTunes the video looked like not very well compressed MPEG-4. The video wouldn’t transfer to the iPod because it wasn’t a valid .m4v file, though the Get Info window stated it was H.264. The content was available in the podcast section, but what good is a podcast that won’t play on a pod. At first I thought it was a terrible screw up Wolf’s part, but I’m not sure that’s their fault. Apple’s published specs don’t seem to be correct. It doesn’t appear that anything but 320×240 .m4v files gets uploaded to the iPod via iTunes. Maybe a future version of iTunes or iPod software will address this, Wolf should recompress it anyway. It looks terrible as it is.

It’s a shame. Here was content I was interested in having in a portable format. I could have the iPod with me at the grocery store, in the kitchen, or I could peruse recipes in the family room during half time during Patriots games. The one place I’m definitely not going to watch cooking podcasts is on my Mac or PC in the office.

The Sub-Zero content was subpar. The product tie-ins were exceptionally painful. “Now place the steaks in your Wolf broiling pan.” The stuff played like it was right out of Madison Avenue circa 1954. The company charges $6,000 for a fridge. It can afford a good media development firm. But somewhere I guarantee some analyst will herald this as the future of advertising. It’s not. The future of advertising is far more engaging. Madison and Vine is my favorite book on the topic.

Of course I had a discussion with a client about podcasting this morning. Since the Apple announcement I’ve approached babies in strollers to extol the virtues of video podcasting. Anyway, this client is an NPR producer who refuses to let his content be podcast. His case against NPR’s podcasting model boiled down to his belief that free podcasts lower the value of his content. He can’t repeat it as frequently, and it discourages listeners from tuning in to the broadcast. (What does it matter where they listen to it and when? As long as the underwriter gets its name out there everyone should be happy.)

My counterpoint was that in the age of TiVo and iPods and PSPs, people want content where and when they want it, and that he’s limiting his audience substantially. Ironically he brought up Desperate Housewives. “Folks have to watch it on Sunday so they can talk about it on Monday.” Of course, those who need to can catch up on Monday for $1.99 via iTunes, and watch it while on the treadmill at the gym. ABC seems to have decided that a podcast the day after air isn’t going to hurt ratings or future DVD sales.

We could have gone back and forth on this for a while, but I realized I ran the risk sounding like those arrogant dot-com kids in the 90s declaring, “You just don’t get it.” It turned out a lot of those old guys did get it. Maybe my client’s right, but somehow I can’t imagine that PSPs and iPods and phones aren’t going to change the media landscape forever.

Rooting for the good guys

IndieFlix is a business I really want to succeed. Today’s NY Times featured an article on the company. It’s an internet-based film distribution company. The independent filmmaker submits the film, IndieFlix authors a DVD, markets the film, and handles distribution. Films typically cost $9.95 with the filmmaker getting 1/3 off the top. It’s better than most distribution deals available to indies today, but IPTV folks are promising better so I hope they can gain traction quickly.

So why route for Scilla Andreen and Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi? The Times article quotes one of the principals as doing this to give something back to the community. From what I can tell the principals are really talented with the Emmy bling to prove it. But neither ever struck it big. I’ve been around lots of folks like that who, rather than focusing on the positive “hey this is a terribly cool way to make a living even without the fame and fortune,” choose to focus on the fact that they never reached the potential their 11th grade English teacher predicted and are bitter and cynical.

For those who need another reason to pull for this pair, go to their obligatory business model virtuous cycle diagram. How can you not root for a company that uses the word moola in its PowerPoint presentations? Kip and Uncle Rico would be proud.

Their site is still in beta, and the Times exposure is going to get them some traffic. Good luck.

From the mailbag

A former Scient buddy sent this to me. It was just five years ago this actually worked as a strategy for publicly traded companies. Cue Barbara Steisand’s “The Way We Were.” The tears are welling up.

IPTV delays mean opportunity

ABI research released a report today on IPTV. The overall findings aren’t surprising. IPTV rollout in North America is behind previous projections. The telcos were expected to be the primary drivers, but they have fallen behind schedule, citing excessive regulation among other factors. Even where the telcos have begun rolling out IPTV services, true IPTV services are not available. ABI notes that Verizon’s video service is no more than an RF overlay. If that’s the case, then the telcos have nothing to offer over existing cable services. That leaves them to compete on price. Considering the pounding their voice revenues are taking, one would think they’d rather offer premium services at premium prices.

The telco delay also keeps the pure play IPTV companies in the game a little longer, running the risk that someone will gain traction. Among the gang of three – Brightcove, Akimbo, and Dave – Brightcove has the best chance. First, it’s got good leadership. Second, its initial go to market strategy did not include a proprietary set top box. (Akimbo and Dave are moving away from STBs.) Brightcove has instead hitched its wagon to Microsoft Media Center technology that requires networking the TV and the PC. How many non-geeks are going to try that? Who wants more wires and devices in the living room? This is a recipe for glacial adoption rates.

But what if Brightcove could untether the TV from the home network? Then they might have something. Develop a solution that gives users the option of burning content to DVDs or Video CDs. The digital rights management can be similar to that of online music purchases with the customer is only allowed to burn one or two discs of a downloaded program. Since Brightcove is initially focusing on shorter form, long tail content, this can be a viable alternative. The client application can be designed to download, decompress, and burn in the background. It might add some time to the process, but its service isn’t for the instant gratification crowd anyway.

Back in June, Amazon bought CustomFlix – an on demand DVD distributor. It’s not a leap to imagine a download service evolving from this marriage. The fact is that the longer the telcos delay real IPTV rollouts, the greater the chance they’ll miss the opportunity. What if the likes of Amazon or eBay partner with a Brightcove? The telcos will remain stuck in the dumb pipe business.

It’s a phone, not a TV

With the announcements of the video iPod and EchoStar’s PocketDish, there’s been more attention on mobile video in the past week than ever before. The mobile phone carriers should be disappointed. They’ve been in this space for some time with very little to show for it.

From the NY Times Oct. 17, 2005, “Now Playing on a Tiny Screen”

Ms. Barrabee [Yankee Group analyst] places the number of mobile video viewers at about 500,000 in the United States, a tiny number given that there are 193.6 million mobile phone subscribers. To watch video now, consumers must own a phone with video capabilities and pay a service fee to receive broadcasts. A Yankee Group survey found that only 1 percent of those who subscribe to video service on their cellphones watch it monthly.

Those aren’t very encouraging numbers. Since MobiTV claims 300,000 subscribers, that leaves 200,000 for the superior V Cast service from Verizon. Of course superiority to MobiTV doesn’t mean much. It’s like how a Packard was superior to an Edsel.

What should really scare the carriers is the 1% number. A customer lays out a couple of hundred bucks more for a video capable phone, pays $15 or so per month for a video service, then ignores it. How long before the 99% who don’t even check in once a month decide to spend their $15 elsewhere? What do the carriers think that these subscribers are telling their friends about mobile video?

By December 26, just about six weeks after its announcement, video iPods will significantly outnumber mobile video phones in the US. The demographic likely to watch mobile video is the iPod demographic. So carriers need to be creative in crafting mobile video offerings if they are to stay in the video game. Where does this put media companies like Fox?

Fox has been creating “mobisodes” based on its 24 series and made them available for $0.99 to mobile phone users. According to the same NY Times article Fox says it’s spent $500,000 for these mobisodes. To break even Fox has to sell 500,000 of these things, but mobile phone video only provides a potential total market of 500,000. Many would argue that these mobisodes should not be viewed as a profit center. They are a promotional tool for the broadcast version 24. That sounds plausible, until you hear what folks at Fox have to say about it in the same article:

“24: Conspiracy” did not feature “24’s” cast or story line. Instead, Fox hired nonunion actors to keep the cost for the serial under $500,000. “With television, one of the things you have to deal with is the guild and union issues, and we said, ‘Go ahead and do this nonunion and on the cheap,’ ” said Joel Surnow, a producer of “24.” “It is not a ’24’ thing.”Mr. Surnow said he was not concerned that the mobisodes might hurt the “24” brand name. “In a minute, how bad could it be?” he said.

So if it can’t hurt the real 24, how can it help? If these mobisodes can’t fly on their own there’s no point in making them. Why not offer them through iTunes? It’s a bigger market with a better demographic for Fox. When the video content providers jump, where will it leave the carriers’ mobile video offerings?

Video podcast tutorial

Here’s a quick tutorial for those who want to get a video podcast up in short order. You’ll need is the following:

  • QuickTime Pro 7.0.3 for H.264 encoding, QuickTime Pro 6 for MPEG-4
  • Any text editor
  • An FTP client [ Mac | PC ]
  • Web server space
  • A QuickTime movie you may legally distribute
  • Step 1

    Open the movie with the QuickTime Pro Player and select Export from the File menu. From the Options menu select “Movie to iPod video (320×240). Save the file, making sure not to remove or change the m4v file extension. Be prepared to wait. Apple wants your video to look good, so it defaults to the H.264 codec and encodes using 2-pass VBR. On my PowerBook it was taking something like 3x real time to encode. Once you get the hang of this you can experiment with other encoding methods, but for now this delivers a darn good picture even if it takes forever and uses a bit of bandwidth (750 kbs/sec).

    If you don’t have QT 7, you can use QT 6. Export as an MPEG-4 file with the mP4 extension. You will have to set the raster size and the bit rate manually in Options. The mp4 codec yields a lower quality image at the same bit rate as H.264, but encodes a lot faster.

    QT Pro Export Window
    Step 2

    Create the XML file for iTunes or another RSS reader to access. This document is served like a web page from a standard web server. Rather than go through the steps one by one, I’ve created a template. Just go through the template and replace anything written in all caps. You’ll see what I mean once you’re in there. Make sure you save this file as text-only. I prefer to edit these in Dreamweaver or with BBEdit.

    Step 3

    FTP the files to the web server.

    Step 4

    In iTunes 6, select Podcasts in the left column. Under the Advanced menu, select Subscribe to Podcast. Enter the URL of the XML file you created. Your video will begin downloading in iTunes.

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