AfterThought: Why digital video will never be the hit people hope.

14 Comments

Pretty much from the instant someone figured out how to record audio, people have been asking “how can we make this smaller to take it with you?” Even in the age of radio and the record, people wanted to take their music with them. They put radios in cars, there were pocket radios, lunchbox record players, BoomBoxes, and of course the Walkman put an entire album in your pocket. It has been a constant progression since the first recorded bit of audio to cram more sound in less and less space. So when digital audio players came out, it was basically more of the same.

Now you could fit an entire collection of music in a pocket device, and eventually it got to the point where you could carry more music than you could ever get around to ever to having the time to hear. It became like an insane game of musical Pokemon, trying to get a digital copy of every song you could remember the name of, and still finding you had another few gigs of storage left on your player! It is no real surprise that now every pen, shoe, ,pair of sunglasses or phone is also a digital music player. People have been wanting their entire life to have a never-ending soundtrack since before Frankie and Annette were having their beach parties.

Video, on the other hand, has taken pretty much the opposite path. Since the first TV broadcast, everyone has been asking “how can we make this bigger, and how can we make it look better?” That is why all the industry expectations of a boom in mobile digital video to rival the boom in digital audio are just misguided and bound to disappoint. Portable video devices aren’t anything new.

It wasn’t long after the Walkman that Sony came out with the Watchman, and there have been plenty of other attempts to push this idea as well. The bad news is that aside from the ‘pimped out ride’ market, and the “is there something we can do to shut these screaming kids up” soccer-mom minivan market, there has never been much interest in video on the go. In fact, most people just care about how big, not small, they can make their video.

The reason for this is really pretty simple; the video viewing experience is fundamentally different from the audio listening experience. Music, and listening in general, is something that doesn’t take a lot of concentration. We are wired to be able to tune in and out of different sounds as we need to. Our brains are not the wired the same way when it comes to our eyes.

When we are watching something, that is the center of attention of our entire brains, as any wife trying to hold a conversation on Superbowl Sunday can tell you! Where your eyes go is where the focus of your attention goes. As such, watching video as you walk down the street, drive in your car, sit at your desk at work, or do your homework is at best counterproductive, and at worst dangerous. Also, unlike reading, video is time-sensitive. If you stop reading a newspaper or web page in the middle of a paragraph, when you come back to it, not much has been lost. The same is not true of video.

Breaking up a video into a bunch of quick 20-second chunks that you keep pausing and restarting throughout the day is pretty much guaranteed to kill even the most phenomenal movie by the most talented director. This is why we tend to reserve our video watching for time we can devote to an engrossing experience with as big a screen as we can find. As long as it is going to take over our entire conscious mind, we want it to be as rewarding as possible.

Sure, there are exceptions to this, like that 15th hour of your flight to Japan, or the 5th hour of waiting in line for that new video game console, but those are the times where self mutilation and lint ball sculpture start to sound like viable entertainment possibilities too. How many of us have those experiences on a weekly basis?

  • squished18

    Hi L.M.Lloyd,

    Another thought-provoking post!

    Regarding the paragraph starting with
    “You aren’t going to see a multi-billion dollar Video Ringtone market spring up.”

    I agree that you likely won’t see a multi-billion dollar video ringtone industry. But I also thing the ringtone industry will be in serious decline within the next few years. With the Pearl, you can now easily use MP3s are your ringtone. (and probably with WM devices and Palm devices and the iPhone) Why bother buying a ringtone any more? I think the main point there is not that video ringtones won’t take off because of the limitations of video. I think the main point there is that buying ANY ringtone really isn’t necessary any more.

    “Everyone at the gym isn’t going to be carrying around their own TV they watch shows on while they work out. People aren’t going to be driving down the street watching sitcoms on their way to the office.”

    I seriously beg to differ. Since the introduction of the Pearl, I’ve done this many times myself. I’ve had video of old episodes of comedies and car shows playing in the background while I do other work. I can carry this with me wherever I am in the house. I’ll have it playing while I’m folding laundry, washing dishes, cooking… I find it takes the monotony out of the task I’m working on. Yes, this isn’t going to work for the World Cup, but watching a Scrubs re-run for the twentieth time while folding underwear is something at least one person does on a regular basis. Finally, witnessing the growth of back-seat DVD players, I think even this “niche” is hardly insignificant.

    I think the number one roadblock to massive adoption of portable video is the file format conversion headaches. There are at least 20 different audio codecs (and variations) commonly used and sometimes that is already a hassle making sure you can listen to the files you want to. When it comes to video, the complexity increases by an order of magnitude. If you want to ever get a sense of this, check out the help file of the mplayer program! Once somebody creates a program that allows my mom to drag-and-drop any video from a hard drive or DVD to her portable video player in 5 minutes or less, I think you’ll see this take off.

    “…but I doubt it will ever be as big a hit as portable audio or or even handheld gaming, no matter how much phone manufacturers and network providers try to hype it.”

    It won’t be successfully marketed by phone manufacturers or network providers because their business models aren’t setup to address the market demand where this technology really has value. Phone manufacturers and network providers are interested in selling you streaming mobile video. Again, I agree that there isn’t much of a market for that. But I think the real market is in downloadable mobile video. I believe this can be marketed successfully by the Apples, Samsungs, and Sonys of the world.

    squished18

  • squished18

    Hi L.M.Lloyd,

    Another thought-provoking post!

    Regarding the paragraph starting with
    “You aren’t going to see a multi-billion dollar Video Ringtone market spring up.”

    I agree that you likely won’t see a multi-billion dollar video ringtone industry. But I also thing the ringtone industry will be in serious decline within the next few years. With the Pearl, you can now easily use MP3s are your ringtone. (and probably with WM devices and Palm devices and the iPhone) Why bother buying a ringtone any more? I think the main point there is not that video ringtones won’t take off because of the limitations of video. I think the main point there is that buying ANY ringtone really isn’t necessary any more.

    “Everyone at the gym isn’t going to be carrying around their own TV they watch shows on while they work out. People aren’t going to be driving down the street watching sitcoms on their way to the office.”

    I seriously beg to differ. Since the introduction of the Pearl, I’ve done this many times myself. I’ve had video of old episodes of comedies and car shows playing in the background while I do other work. I can carry this with me wherever I am in the house. I’ll have it playing while I’m folding laundry, washing dishes, cooking… I find it takes the monotony out of the task I’m working on. Yes, this isn’t going to work for the World Cup, but watching a Scrubs re-run for the twentieth time while folding underwear is something at least one person does on a regular basis. Finally, witnessing the growth of back-seat DVD players, I think even this “niche” is hardly insignificant.

    I think the number one roadblock to massive adoption of portable video is the file format conversion headaches. There are at least 20 different audio codecs (and variations) commonly used and sometimes that is already a hassle making sure you can listen to the files you want to. When it comes to video, the complexity increases by an order of magnitude. If you want to ever get a sense of this, check out the help file of the mplayer program! Once somebody creates a program that allows my mom to drag-and-drop any video from a hard drive or DVD to her portable video player in 5 minutes or less, I think you’ll see this take off.

    “…but I doubt it will ever be as big a hit as portable audio or or even handheld gaming, no matter how much phone manufacturers and network providers try to hype it.”

    It won’t be successfully marketed by phone manufacturers or network providers because their business models aren’t setup to address the market demand where this technology really has value. Phone manufacturers and network providers are interested in selling you streaming mobile video. Again, I agree that there isn’t much of a market for that. But I think the real market is in downloadable mobile video. I believe this can be marketed successfully by the Apples, Samsungs, and Sonys of the world.

    squished18

  • Rob

    Why would I WANT to pay for video and have it on a portable device? The main reason is that a lot of popular shows are series oriented.

    It is difficult to jump in part way through. Being able to buy episodes means that I don’t have to worry about missing an episode.

    Being able to have it on my iPod means I can watch on the subway train, the bus, the train to Montreal, the hotel in Montreal, the flight back from Montreal, the TV in the living room, the TV in the bedroom, the TV in the rec room downstairs, or even while I’m eating lunch in the staff room.

    If the price of each episode in digital, portable format is the same as buying and ripping the DVD versions the I’d rather buy it digitally. Unfortunately in Canada we are getting the shaft on the iTunes site and can not get TV shows yet. Regardless, the work involved in ripping the DVD’s to iPod are worth the freedom to watch when and where I feel like it.

    In the future I may decide to switch devices to get a slightly larger screen but for now, my iPod and the video’s on it constitute the majority of my video watching.

  • Rob

    Why would I WANT to pay for video and have it on a portable device? The main reason is that a lot of popular shows are series oriented.

    It is difficult to jump in part way through. Being able to buy episodes means that I don’t have to worry about missing an episode.

    Being able to have it on my iPod means I can watch on the subway train, the bus, the train to Montreal, the hotel in Montreal, the flight back from Montreal, the TV in the living room, the TV in the bedroom, the TV in the rec room downstairs, or even while I’m eating lunch in the staff room.

    If the price of each episode in digital, portable format is the same as buying and ripping the DVD versions the I’d rather buy it digitally. Unfortunately in Canada we are getting the shaft on the iTunes site and can not get TV shows yet. Regardless, the work involved in ripping the DVD’s to iPod are worth the freedom to watch when and where I feel like it.

    In the future I may decide to switch devices to get a slightly larger screen but for now, my iPod and the video’s on it constitute the majority of my video watching.

  • Thought

    I think that digital video itself, as in video delivered in digital download, will be huge, just as in audio. I do see a day when the CD/DVD/optical disk itself is very obsolete and infrequently used as the main means of purchasing prerecorded content. Surely in my own home I’d rather download a movie to watch on my big screen TV rather than go out and buy a DVD.

    However, digital video on a portable device…well, I agree that this is a rather harder market to satisfy than portable audio. However, I do believe it has its place and will ultimately be a very large market. As long as people can easily take some video with them, why not? There are many times when casual video watching on a small screen can be practical. Not only that, but if I can take my video with me on a portable device, I can also visit someone and play that video on another large TV set.

    So I do think that portable video is a harder nut to crack than portable audio, I do think it has its place and will only grow to a very large and lucrative market, esp. when the future generations who grew up on digital content rule the marketplace.

  • Thought

    I think that digital video itself, as in video delivered in digital download, will be huge, just as in audio. I do see a day when the CD/DVD/optical disk itself is very obsolete and infrequently used as the main means of purchasing prerecorded content. Surely in my own home I’d rather download a movie to watch on my big screen TV rather than go out and buy a DVD.

    However, digital video on a portable device…well, I agree that this is a rather harder market to satisfy than portable audio. However, I do believe it has its place and will ultimately be a very large market. As long as people can easily take some video with them, why not? There are many times when casual video watching on a small screen can be practical. Not only that, but if I can take my video with me on a portable device, I can also visit someone and play that video on another large TV set.

    So I do think that portable video is a harder nut to crack than portable audio, I do think it has its place and will only grow to a very large and lucrative market, esp. when the future generations who grew up on digital content rule the marketplace.

  • L. M. Lloyd

    squished18

    I appreciate that for some people this is a highly coveted and useful feature, but that really is a small group. If you look at the Nielsen Media Research figures on portable video usage, you will see that a very small fraction of people who have a portable device capable of playing video really use the feature. It doesn’t matter if it is an iPod, PSP, or phone, people (in America at least) just aren’t biting. Verizon has had some limited success (better than anyone else), but even that is pretty small relative to the portable audio market. Even people who have very video-centric devices like an Archos or PSP still don’t use it very often for video, using it far more often audio or games respectively.

    You are certainly correct that all the various encoding, aspect ratio, and resolution issues only make it more difficult, but I really think the main issue isn’t the nuts and bolts, but the fact that there aren’t that many people looking to watch their favorite show on a postage-stamp screen.

  • L. M. Lloyd

    squished18

    I appreciate that for some people this is a highly coveted and useful feature, but that really is a small group. If you look at the Nielsen Media Research figures on portable video usage, you will see that a very small fraction of people who have a portable device capable of playing video really use the feature. It doesn’t matter if it is an iPod, PSP, or phone, people (in America at least) just aren’t biting. Verizon has had some limited success (better than anyone else), but even that is pretty small relative to the portable audio market. Even people who have very video-centric devices like an Archos or PSP still don’t use it very often for video, using it far more often audio or games respectively.

    You are certainly correct that all the various encoding, aspect ratio, and resolution issues only make it more difficult, but I really think the main issue isn’t the nuts and bolts, but the fact that there aren’t that many people looking to watch their favorite show on a postage-stamp screen.

  • L. M. Lloyd

    Thought

    Sure, downloadable home video has a market, especially when we are talking about devices like the 360 and PS3 that will probably be in over a hundred million houses over the next few years. I mean, one could argue that it is already huge in the form of the digital cable/DVR combo.

    However, in this instance I was talking specifically in the context of mobile devices.

    I will say of home video though that I think even there the Media Center/Network Extender model is probably not ever going to catch on as big as people hope. I see the real future there being IPTV and video streamed/downloaded directly to a device that is already connected to the TV. I don’t really think the Vongo/Amazon/iTunes/CinemaNow model is really going to be the winner. By its very nature it adds delays and complications that most people seem to be unwilling to deal with when they just want to watch a show. I think that the real hero of digital digital video (both home and mobile) are going to be integrated services that add real value beyond downloading it to your computer and then sending it off to some other box that then displays it to your TV.

    Sure, geeks like me see all sorts of cool potential for a Media Center type box, but I think the last thing your average consumer wants is another piece of expensive hardware taking up another input on their TV.

  • L. M. Lloyd

    Thought

    Sure, downloadable home video has a market, especially when we are talking about devices like the 360 and PS3 that will probably be in over a hundred million houses over the next few years. I mean, one could argue that it is already huge in the form of the digital cable/DVR combo.

    However, in this instance I was talking specifically in the context of mobile devices.

    I will say of home video though that I think even there the Media Center/Network Extender model is probably not ever going to catch on as big as people hope. I see the real future there being IPTV and video streamed/downloaded directly to a device that is already connected to the TV. I don’t really think the Vongo/Amazon/iTunes/CinemaNow model is really going to be the winner. By its very nature it adds delays and complications that most people seem to be unwilling to deal with when they just want to watch a show. I think that the real hero of digital digital video (both home and mobile) are going to be integrated services that add real value beyond downloading it to your computer and then sending it off to some other box that then displays it to your TV.

    Sure, geeks like me see all sorts of cool potential for a Media Center type box, but I think the last thing your average consumer wants is another piece of expensive hardware taking up another input on their TV.

  • Thought

    Lloyd: regarding home video, I will agree with you that the simplest solution will win out.

    Basically, I think with video what everyone ultimately wants is what they have with audio: the ability to play whatever they want whenever they want, with content acquisition being trivially easy. It’s getting there…and you are right, some would say pretty much there with the DVR/cable/movies on demand/ services.

    I think these PC media center type solutions will have their place, although I do agree with you that for many it seems too complicated. However, the ease of use will only get better over time, and who knows, eventually this type of functionality may be incorporated into the TV itself. Plus, again, the younger generations of today are growing up being far more technically savvy, and so when they become the dominant consumers, they will be far more willing and capable of navigating through a more complex set of options.

  • Thought

    Lloyd: regarding home video, I will agree with you that the simplest solution will win out.

    Basically, I think with video what everyone ultimately wants is what they have with audio: the ability to play whatever they want whenever they want, with content acquisition being trivially easy. It’s getting there…and you are right, some would say pretty much there with the DVR/cable/movies on demand/ services.

    I think these PC media center type solutions will have their place, although I do agree with you that for many it seems too complicated. However, the ease of use will only get better over time, and who knows, eventually this type of functionality may be incorporated into the TV itself. Plus, again, the younger generations of today are growing up being far more technically savvy, and so when they become the dominant consumers, they will be far more willing and capable of navigating through a more complex set of options.

  • L. M. Lloyd

    Actually, in a weird way, I think that video has to work a LOT easier and better than the current audio distribution system before it will be a hit. The current audio market is actually pretty crude and complicated compared to turning on a TV and flipping through the channels, but it seems so much less of a hassle than going to the store and browsing CDs, that people go ahead and use it.

    The difference with video is that we already have the option of watching it on Pay-Per-View, or going to the store and getting the DVD, or getting it with OnDemand or putting it in your NetFlix queue, or waiting for it to come on cable, or waiting for it to come on broadcast. That is a lot of consumer choice, most of which requires no more effort than flipping a remote. It is actually quite a bit more sophisticated (from a consumer choice point of view) than the state of the music market back when digital audio hit, where your only real options were to go buy it on CD, or wait for it to pop up practically at random on whatever radio station you were listening to.

    Digital video, unlike digital audio, is trying to find a place for itself in an ecosystem where consumers already have an abundance of choice. It is largely a solution looking for a problem. Sure, it has some advantages over some of the other ways to acquire video, but nothing like the advantages digital audio had when it really started taking off. I don’t think it is just an issue of the solution having to be simple enough for people to understand. I think it also has to be simple enough to be worth the trouble, which is really hard, when you already have a box that can record any content off of 500 channels automatically, and can order movies right from your couch before they are even available on DVD. THis is one of the reasons I really thing the game consoles have a strong chance of being the real contenders. Plenty of people who would never bother to get a special piece of hardware just to watch digital video, will still go get a game console to play games. Once it is there, already hooked up to their system, and able to download video as easily as it plays a game, then it becomes an option, because it doesn’t really require any extra effort.

    Where the things like Media Centers, Network Extenders, the AppleTV, and the like really have problems, is that first the person has to see enough need to watch digital video to go out and buy the thing, then hook it up, then start buying the content. It doesn’t really matter how hard (or easy) it is to use, if they never buy it and hook it up.

    I will be especially interested in seeing where Microsoft is going with this whole IPTV 360 concept, because one box that could be DVD/HD-DVD player, game console, media extender, DVR, and cable set-top box would be really hard to beat. It would make the difference between downloaded content, OnDemand content, cable content, and DVR content completely transparent, which is when it will really start to take off in a big way.

  • L. M. Lloyd

    Actually, in a weird way, I think that video has to work a LOT easier and better than the current audio distribution system before it will be a hit. The current audio market is actually pretty crude and complicated compared to turning on a TV and flipping through the channels, but it seems so much less of a hassle than going to the store and browsing CDs, that people go ahead and use it.

    The difference with video is that we already have the option of watching it on Pay-Per-View, or going to the store and getting the DVD, or getting it with OnDemand or putting it in your NetFlix queue, or waiting for it to come on cable, or waiting for it to come on broadcast. That is a lot of consumer choice, most of which requires no more effort than flipping a remote. It is actually quite a bit more sophisticated (from a consumer choice point of view) than the state of the music market back when digital audio hit, where your only real options were to go buy it on CD, or wait for it to pop up practically at random on whatever radio station you were listening to.

    Digital video, unlike digital audio, is trying to find a place for itself in an ecosystem where consumers already have an abundance of choice. It is largely a solution looking for a problem. Sure, it has some advantages over some of the other ways to acquire video, but nothing like the advantages digital audio had when it really started taking off. I don’t think it is just an issue of the solution having to be simple enough for people to understand. I think it also has to be simple enough to be worth the trouble, which is really hard, when you already have a box that can record any content off of 500 channels automatically, and can order movies right from your couch before they are even available on DVD. THis is one of the reasons I really thing the game consoles have a strong chance of being the real contenders. Plenty of people who would never bother to get a special piece of hardware just to watch digital video, will still go get a game console to play games. Once it is there, already hooked up to their system, and able to download video as easily as it plays a game, then it becomes an option, because it doesn’t really require any extra effort.

    Where the things like Media Centers, Network Extenders, the AppleTV, and the like really have problems, is that first the person has to see enough need to watch digital video to go out and buy the thing, then hook it up, then start buying the content. It doesn’t really matter how hard (or easy) it is to use, if they never buy it and hook it up.

    I will be especially interested in seeing where Microsoft is going with this whole IPTV 360 concept, because one box that could be DVD/HD-DVD player, game console, media extender, DVR, and cable set-top box would be really hard to beat. It would make the difference between downloaded content, OnDemand content, cable content, and DVR content completely transparent, which is when it will really start to take off in a big way.