~ Archive for Gadgets & Services ~

Evolution of TV and disagreeing with David Pogue


<cross-posted on my personal ws>

I disagree with David Pogue’s blog post on streaming content that the past few years of stumbling attempts for streaming content were due to technological problems that were “solved” by Netflix.

Nonetheless, the industry has been trying to sell us on Internet movie downloads for years, and yet it’s remained a techie niche until now. It took Netflix to figure out how to crack the technology code, bringing us tantalizingly close to the “any movie, any time” future that’s surely just around the corner.

In the U.S., the reason streaming content didn’t take off until now was because of poor broadband infrastructure. I mean, even now, the fastest speed you can get through Comcast is not very fast. Business is less about ideas and more about being at the right place at the right time.

Last month, my op-edish paper for Harry Lewis‘ class on Life, Liberty and Happiness After the Digital Explosion was about how TV is evolving from broadcasting (a classic one-way communication) to downloading. I was lucky to have submitted my proposal last year before mainstream media made it huge issue, although the result, as you can see below “leaned towards the obvious” (which was the comment I received for the paper). I didn’t get into net neutrality or the dilemma of cable companies because that would open a casket of worms, but these issues really should be discussed.


It was New Year’s Eve. Outside, the snow was quickly piling on the sidewalks, but inside Hollywood Express, the tinkle of the bell hanging on the front door was frequent-boosting good cheer of the customers. Waddling around in huge coats and wrappings, they plucked out DVDs from the shelves and waited in a long line to check them out. It looked like business was good.

Ah, but there were better days, said Darren Buchanan, the 33-year old manager of the locally-owned video rental store. He admitted that the business wasn’t in deficit, but after 28 years, it was counting off the last minutes on its death clock. “Eventually, we’re going to liquidate. It’s a matter of trying to hang in there ‘til it does,” he said.

Having worked in the video rental business since he was 18, Buchanan has experienced changes in the industry first-hand. The first store he worked at only rented out VHS tapes; now, most of the videos are DVDs and some are Blu-ray discs. He claims business was good up until a few years ago, when profits made a sharp U-turn. “These video shops used to be a goldmine. You could open one anywhere and you could make a lot of money. Now, no one in their right mind would start a video store,” he said.

Buchanan said that he saw a massive drop in rentals about four years ago. “It happened when Netflix was advertising; it wasn’t because of Blockbuster or the Internet. Some people may have stopped going to video shops because they were downloading movies, but downloading would take a long time-you’d have to start downloading something before going to work in order to see it that night,” he recalled. “But now, the Internet is a threat. Downloading is so much easier and I think ultimately everything is going to go online.” He hasn’t started looking for another job yet (”because I love movies”) but he says he’s mentally-if not financially-preparing himself for the day the store closes. “The industry says it’s going to take five to six years but I think it’s going to come much sooner-maybe two to three years,” he said.

Changing Definition of TV
What is TV? Or rather, what is watching TV? Is TV still TV if you’re watching it on your laptop or your iPhone? One thing for certain is that television, while still a media, is no longer a medium.

Although the concept of Internet TV has been around for more than a decade, actual Internet TV is just starting to take shape. Now that more homes are being hooked up with broadband in the United States and connection speeds are getting faster, Americans are quickly changing how they watch TV and realizing that TV isn’t what it used to be. More people are watching television shows online or through some kind of video service that is connected to the Internet.

Matthew Shinners is one of those people. A student in his mid twenties, one of his joys in life is watching TV. He still owns a television set, but watches more on-line. “On the TV set, I usually watch Blu-ray movies and shows that are still airing that I follow,” he said.

For Ruth Abrams, an online religious community supervisor in her early 40s, watching things online is more about not watching it. She got rid of her TV set because “television represented a pure time drain.” Now, her son is growing up as an Internet TV user. “He mostly watches things on YouTube, he thinks videos are 10 minutes long,” she says. “So much as I would like to limit his screen time, I think watching online has a lot of advantages over the relative passivity of using a TV set.”

DK Kim, a woman in her thirties, still subscribes to cable but finds she is watching more shows online. “I go online when I miss a show, or if I want to watch something in bed,” she says. “The TV is in the living room but I have a roommate and in my room, it’s more private and I know I’m not bothering anyone.”

There may be hundreds of different reasons why people watch things online, but they are, and network companies are realizing this trend and trying to cater to viewers’ needs. After struggling with YouTube over copyrighted material that was being uploaded in short clips, network companies have only recently started to host entire episodes on their own web sites, or experimenting with sites such as Hulu.com, a joint venture between NBC and News Corp. ABC.com recently added a high definition viewing option for people watching on bigger screens.

Moving from Format to Distribution
The transition towards streaming video is happening at a pace much faster than it took the Video Home System (VHS) to switch to DVD. After mass retailer sales of DVD videos began in late 1997, it took several years for DVD rentals to outnumber VHS rentals. In 2007, JVC, the company that introduced the VHS format in 1977, said that it would no longer manufacture VHS recorders (It still produces hybrid VHS-DVD players).

All in all, VHS had a 20-year run before a worthy competitor arrived. The DVD was not as fortunate. TiVo-a digital video recorder in the form of a set top box that automatically records one’s favorite TV shows-was launched in 1999, just two years after the DVD’s commercial debut. In 2006, TiVo announced that it was adding a new “comprehensive broadband video delivery system” that would allow home movies to be sent over the Internet and automatically convert Web videos for display on TV sets. In TiVo’s world, there would be no need for any physical video product.

The move towards streaming content was also seen in Netflix. Netflix was founded in 1997 and began business under its current name in 2002 as a DVD mail delivery service. In 2007, however, it decided to start streaming video content. For a while, its “watch instantly” content was extremely limited-mostly old movies or B-rated films-but in the past year, it has aggressively expanded that content with television shows and more recent and popular movie releases. It also forged many partnerships with video players such as TiVo and Xbox360, and even released its own video streaming set-top box-the Roku-for those who wanted to watch on-demand Netflix videos on the big screen instead of their computer.

Service Providers v. Electronics makers, Boxes v. Displays
The high-tech market research firm In-Stat predicts that online video revenue will surpass $4.5 billion globally by the year 2012, up from $1.2 billion in 2008. It foresees that purchased and rented videos will account for the most growth in online video content in the short term and that ad-supported video from major TV networks will be making money with online videos by 2012.

Predicting that online video will grow is not so hard given the current trends, but the bigger question is who will get to deliver that content. With so many different parties trying to get a slice of the pie, it will be interesting to see whether or not people will choose enhanced set-top boxes or enhanced digital screens as the intermediary of their video streaming service and whether the ultimate decision will be more influenced by the content makers or the end users.

In the next few years, we will witness a fierce battle between service providers and electronics makers. Traditionally, the service providers were the ones who had control over the content. Content for cable television, for example, differed depending on what kind of subscription plan one had; different cable companies offered different channels (content). Because cable service providers controlled the content, they were able to secure a steady source of income and make sure viewers paid for the content they were viewing. Cellular phone service companies were the same in that they decided which content could be made available on cell phones and charged users according to usage.

The Internet, however, changed everything. Now, service providers are no longer in control over their content, enabling device makers to step into that position. With TiVo, Apple TV, or Roku, viewers may not see the need to subscribe to cable television anymore. That doesn’t mean that the content from cable TV will go away-only that the content will be delivered through arrangements between production companies and the video service companies, not Comcast.

Will companies like Comcast sit around and let that happen? That is where the debate over net neutrality steps in. This is a critical issue when it comes to the future of TV. If Internet service providers decide to take advantage of the situation that nothing can be done without Internet access, they may start to abuse their power.
At the same time, there will be competition between the set-top box makers and the display makers. Right now, set-top box makers are in the lead, because they have more contracts with production companies and film distributors, but display makers have the advantage of being a necessity. One can watch videos without a TiVo, but one can’t watch videos without some kind of screen. If display makers are savvy in inking deals with content developers, they will quickly overcome set-top box makers. In this respect, Xbox360 and PS3 have an advantage over Roku, TiVo, and Blockbuster Box in that the devices can do more than play videos.

Huge Market for Content Creators
Whether or not distribution takes place through the service providers or electronics makers, at the end of the day, the real benefactors will be the content generators. Falling costs of video production will enable more people to create content and make that content distributable on the Web. Like news, we will begin to see more specialized portals for online video. YouTube will no longer be the main source for online video because it is simply too generic. People will want sites or services that have quality content that caters to their interests. For instance, foodies will be going to Food.com or some other channel that compiles the best of food-related video content.

We will also see a rise in content aggregators, such as Netflix and more recently, Amazon’s video on demand. It will also be interesting to see if major studios will continue using these distributors or start hosting content on their own sites.

Now that actual tools allow viewers to become more engaged, will TV become more interactive? American Idol, for instance, was seen as a primitive model of user participation, but actual broadband connection will allow more interactive features. Some of these interactive features could include texting with friends while watching the same program or using object identification software to identify products featured on TV shows and then buying them with online banking tools. One of the key characteristics of TV as a media was its one-way communication function-if it becomes interactive, would we still call it TV?

On the other hand, many studies show that people actually like the passiveness of watching programmed TV, one of the reasons scholars give in explaining why Internet TV took so long to take off. That could open up opportunities for services that combine pre-programming with some element of customization.

Problems of Media Streaming
Despite all the rosy predictions we have for the future of television that relies heavily on the Internet, one of the biggest problems is that high Internet connection speed is a prerequisite in watching streamed material. This creates a problem because while broadband is a commodity for those living in urban areas, it is still a luxury for those in rural areas. Stephanie Pfeiffer, who lives in a remote area of Massachusetts, only has satellite as an option for Internet connection. Streaming videos is something she cannot imagine. Most of the time, she wakes up at four in the morning to read her email because less people are using the Internet at that hour. When told about streaming video sites such as Hulu, she said, “I didn’t know there were services like that but even if I did, I don’t think I would be able to use it.”

In the meantime, video shops like Hollywood Express are still in business. They may not be making as much as before, but they are making an effort to keep a competitive edge while they still can. For Hollywood Express, that is having an extensive movie library-one that includes foreign films and documentaries that are difficult to find on the Internet. It also helps (for now) that only about 50% of Americans currently have high-speed Internet access.

There are also people who remain optimistic that a small community of people who prefer a physical product will still remain. In a recent report, Gerry Kaufhold, an analyst at In-Stat, said that surveys show that half of consumers still prefer packaged goods over virtual ones. He also noted that the preference is not just with older generations. “Surprisingly, young people who regularly watch online were the group that expressed the highest interest in owing a package goods bundle that includes artwork and extra content,” he said.

Congressman Seeks Camera Phones that Click


U.S. news reports and blogs (here, here and here) are all over the fact that policymakers are fiddling with their gadgets. The proposed bill, called the Camera Phone Predator Alert Act, requires camera phones to make a sound if someone takes a photo. The reason is because “Congress finds that children and adolescents have been exploited by photographs taken in dressing rooms and public places with the use of a camera phone.”

Sound familiar? In 2004, Korea implemented that very same act, requiring Korean phone makers to make phones with a loud sound when a photo was taken. They even set a minimum in the sound levels– 65 decibels. (The proposed US act doesn’t have such details yet) The first reason was “privacy violation” because people were taking lewd pictures in fitting rooms and swimming pools. The rapidly rising image resolution of mobile phone cameras was the second reason.

Japan also has the same law, not surprising considering the fact that quite a number of Japanese men harbor a strong fetish for women’s undergarments (where else would you find a vending machine of panties?). The Tokyo subway system also plays a role in encouraging voyeurism (watch the YouTube video).

In Japan and Korea, the bill was triggered by pictures of teens (high school girls) and adult women. It seems like the US is respecting adult photos and focusing on the camera phone’s abuse of children. Even if Congress passes the bill, however, it will probably take them years to realize it. The Korean government was lucky in implementing the law because Koreans have a very short turnover when it comes to cell phones- an average Korean changes his phone at least once a year (as I recall from an old article; will have to find stats to back that up) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Japanese also change their phones frequently.

I know some people think Congress has better things to do, but hey, if people didn’t have a sick mind and kept their hands (phones?) to themselves, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s really disappointing that we had to have those few people ruin the photo-taking experience for so many of us. I take a lot of photos in museums, and for me, turning down the volume of a camera phone is an act of etiquette to other visitors.

Classical music publishers need to move on to digital


While the Internet has been successful (perhaps too successful) in making audio files more available on the Web, it is still not used so much to share scores. Sheet music carries a lot of copyright issues, mostly held by publishing companies or- in the case of contemporary music- the composers or the family of composers. I don’t know much about popular music scores (I assume they’re pretty much widely available) but classical music scores are still so difficult to find. Think of the volumes and volumes of music that are out there but difficult to access… how great would it be to have a way to find these scores and use them?

Classical music has always been considered high brow, but that doesn’t mean the accessibility of the music should be high as well. It’s easy to find popular pieces online (like Amazon), but not-so-popular pieces and contemporary pieces can be hard to obtain.

It’s difficult, says Dawn, my classical violinist sister. Finding a piece of music (unless it is a popular piece) can be grueling, and then even when you find it, there are so many complications before you can actually play it. Music libraries are hard to use, because many catalog by type, not under composer (Harvard’s music library catalogs by composer, but it is extremely small). In many cases, the same piece will be all over the library in different sections.

Even music librarians have trouble finding scores. For example, the library may not have all the parts for an orchestra piece; in that case, they must borrow from different lending libraries and sometimes, you can’t buy it or photocopy it, just rent it. Private score-owners can be more picky about lending the music– sometimes requesting crazy conditions for using the score (like having to play it before sunset in a courtyard).

Of course, if you’re a professional musician, it’s easier to find scores. For instance, you would know that reliable sheet music for composers like Debussy and Ravel are all from one publisher, so you know what publisher you’re looking for. With Beethoven, for example, there are certain “versions” that are more accurate than others. Sometimes, the best thing is to go to the music store and look at their (old) catalogs to see the list of pieces and the different versions. The best resource is the music library at academic institutes, which is difficult to use once you’ve graduated. Some cities like New York have a public music library (the Performing Arts Public Library), but most cities don’t. Also, if you want some music that is out of print, who knows how you’ll be able to find it?

That’s not to say that the entire industry is behind. Most recently, I was told that Baron Reiter made an online store (which I couldn’t find but will post the link as soon as I get a hold of it), which was a huge step for the music publishing industry. Thankfully, many libraries like the William & Gayle Cook Music Library and Harvard’s Loeb Library are digitizing printed music, but search tools are still very primitive and the digitized collection is teeny tiny.

How great would it be if someone could make a comprehensive score database like Google is doing with Google Books? It could point you to where the music is, be searchable by title, composer, instrument, and have Pandora’s music algorithm thing where it can point you to “similar” music. How better would it be if one could find a PDF and just download it instead of waiting a trillion years for some European publisher to ship the score? (I’d be willing to pay, of course) How cool would it be if there could be a Kindle-like device for music, so you don’t have to carry around a bunch of paper? Musicians could prop up the thin e-score book on their stands and turn pages by tapping their foot on a remote control pad and be able to scribble notes on it. The size could also be blown up for people who have trouble seeing.

Touchy touch-sensitive gadgets


I have an LG Chocolate phone, an iPod,a laptop with a touchpad, and a Nintendo DS, all of which are touch-sensitive. But then the term “touch-sensitive” is misleading. The devices don’t want any kind of touch, they need to be touched (or stroked) in a specific area by a specific thing– most preferably, a human finger because these touch-sensitive gadgets only respond to objects with capacitance.

It’s hilarious that Apple came up with a patent for a glove that lets you peel back the tip of the finger. Silly, yes, but if you’ve ever taken a walk on a cold winter day, you’ll know why this is needed. My house is a 30-min. walk from work, so I often listen to music. Fast-forwarding, skipping tracks, and rewinding can be done with my gloves on, but I can’t turn the wheel. It’s the same with my phone. Both devices long for a human touch (or at least something that has a current running through it) It’s annoying. Sometimes, I try to scroll through tracks on my iPod using my lips instead of taking off my gloves. Yes, I have caught people looking at me in an odd way. They probably thought I was smooching my iPod.

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