War of the Screens

If you’d have asked me a few years ago about what Apple would be moving towards, yesterday’s announcements on the Apple TV would probably have gotten the most focus from me, as they’re exactly what I predicted they should be. While making the Apple TV a glorified Airport Express seems pretty obvious when you think about it, not a whole lot of people were really seeing that vision when I was trying to describe it back then. And even now, people are scratching their heads and missing the point.

But it doesn’t store movies! I can purchase them instead of renting them for the same price from Amazon! But an Xbox/Mac mini/HTPC/Roku/GoogleTV does the same thing, if not more!

Well, yeah. This centralizes your media onto your computers and NAS setups; it’s not a hard drive with HDMI anymore, it’s a receiver. As a receiver, it’ll most likely even play those shows that you ‘buy for the same price’ on Amazon; otherwise, it’s a choice between owning a license for a show and watching it on a computer, or renting it to watch on a TV, iPad, iPod Touch, and/or an iPhone. That workflow is an important designation; you start watching media on the bus on your iPhone heading home, then continue it on the TV where you left off. Later, you head out and watch the end on your iPad. It’s about making media convenient for when you’re on the go, and when you’re not, across an integrated set of screens.

Now, imagine that workflow when you have devices and screens everywhere you go. Your iPhone, iPod, and/or iPad go with you to the toilet, the kitchen, the park. Of course you can already stream media to your TV on a variety of devices. But how seamless is the transition to anything other than a computer and the receiver (whether it’s an Xbox, HTPC, PS3, whatever)? How economical is it to scale up to multiple TVs? How many different encodings do you have to make to support the media on a bunch of devices? How willing do you think the average person is to sit around using Handbrake for every show they want to watch when they can just pay a buck and watch it right then? This isn’t a device for the tinkerer or the person that wants to sit around messing with things; this is for the plug-and-go crowd. And of course, it’s not as appealing to the sorts of people who pride themselves on stealing media and bitch about paying for any content that they use, in any format. For people who already have Xbox and PS3 systems, this is meant to supplement their setups, hook up to another TV, go on the road… remember the Rabbit systems in the ’80s?

But that’s really not the important part. Apple certainly isn’t interested in merely being a passive device manufacturer. Think back to the mid-’90s, when the music labels were fighting tooth and nail against selling music online on a per-song basis. I was involved in some negotiations with them at the time, and I remember how dead-set they were against the single-pay model. They threw around terms like ‘experience’ and ‘cohesion’ – and while they had a point, they were missing what mainstream consumers wanted; music as a commodity, an impulse buy. The product is part of a lifestyle, but to varying degrees. Not all music is ‘art;’ some of it is disposable, just like the difference between gourmet food and snacks. Each can be appropriate in the right time and place, but some people are happy only partaking in one type of cuisine, and really don’t try/want to understand people with different tastes. And people still sometimes have a tough time seeing media as a product; even content creators have trouble viewing their work as, well, work, and not as some sort of perpetual lottery ticket that lets them create once, profit forever, while ignoring the efforts of all of the other people involved who enable the piece to be sold/distributed/promoted.

The landscape of how we buy and consume video (and from whom) is changing, just like it changed with music. It’s not surprising that networks are dragging their heels (just like the music labels did); people are already migrating from standard broadcast channels to using DVRs, PPV, VOD, and other mechanisms to view content, and are in many cases beginning to ditch their cable services while still watching their favorite shows. Previously, networks were big brands that had the benefit of being the central means of discovering and promoting new shows. What happens when any show developer is on even footing to have their show discovered? What happens when the distribution channels are fractioned and no longer distinct in anything other than where the content can be accessed from? Granted, so far there haven’t been any self-made success stories in independent music (although plenty of non-mainstream artists do well enough to get by). But independent video is another beast altogether; there are already podcasts and online programs that are moderately successful. Soon the lines will blur between video programming and e-commerce as well; programs will be advertisements, but structured in an episodic manner that makes it seem like ‘normal’ shows. This means that, as advertisers start to feel muscled out of short-form ads, they’ll migrate into creating programming incorporating their products. Think long-form ‘infomercial’ and ‘edutainment,’ but with an interactive element – brands will be partnering with independent producers to create more targeted, niche programming. This is something that’s been in the works from content creators for a very long time, but it’s just getting to the point where the distribution mechanisms make sense for it to work. Media is still a lucrative business because messages are distributed; when we disagree with those messages, we deem them ‘propaganda,’ but really all media is trying to get us to buy into something as well as to buy something.

And what about Ping? Well, obviously services like iLike, last.fm, etc. already exist to create a social channel for music sharing. While it does seem a bit odd that Apple wouldn’t just buy out iLike, chances are good that they needed a new system because they’ll eventually be using it for more than just music. The services that exist now that socialize all of your media (there are a few) don’t have the advantage of letting you get a recommendation and then pressing a button to have that media instantly accessible on your screen/device. Ping, in its infancy, is all about getting artists off of MySpace. Its next steps, however, will be much more revealing in how Apple’s recent cloud acquisitions fit into the picture.

And what comes after that? Well, think of what can happen with presence detection and your iDevice and/or something like a MiFi. Think of various verticals. Think of integration. Think of what needs to happen for the non-high-tech, non-urban crowd to advance its technology. It’s obvious what Google and Apple’s strategy is if you think about it, and that Microsoft needs to shift a few of their pieces. They all have a vision for the future; do you?