A really rough proposal for an Apple Media Hub (Part One)

01/11/2005

This part is mostly about: The drive towards digital media in the home, and changes in the media creation and distribution ecology:

So I’m going to write this quickly because it’s been stuck in my head for months, and even when I’ve dedicated large chunks of my weekend to trying to get it down, it hasn’t gone terribly well. So my assumption is – find a place to start. Run at it like a mad thing. Don’t worry too much if it’s really dense or confusing, or childishly stupid in places or really badly written or wanders off the mark. Just get it out in the open with all the pretty pictures and stuff you’ve been thinking about before you go insane.

The starting point is an assumption. It’s that we’re looking for better connection between our entertainment devices and our computers, and that we’re increasingly looking towards fully digitally-distributed entertainment media in all parts of our lives. Fundamentally I’m looking at what kind of future home-entertainment-based, digital media playing and manipulating Digital Hub should we be aspiring towards?

The other assumption is that there are companies out there who are interested in working in this space. I think this is demonstrable by looking at the people already in the environment – companies like Sky, Tivo, Apple, Microsoft etc. Again – not a huge assumption to be making.

One of the reasons that companies are interested in this space is because we’re finally reaching the point where home entertainment electronics are converging with computer technologies and the internet. A whole generation of web users are circumventing traditional media distribution channels to get hold of their television programming, films and music. The people who make these things are now looking to go back on the initiative and bring greater functionality – functionality under their control – back to the people.

In the meantime, the companies that make technology and software have clearly realised that there’s money to be made in meeting these needs and so are developing technologies at a fair rate of knots. One way to think about this is to think about the number of desktop and laptop computers in the world and then to think about the number of televisions, VCRs and standalone DVD players in the world. Now imagine that you’ve cornered the market for the operating systems for all these devices. For Microsoft – that’s got to be an insanely attractive proposition. You add to that some attempts to help mediate between content producers and people who watch and view content – DRM, for example – and you start to look indispensible to the ecology. And that’s kind of a license to print money – particularly if (like Apple) you’re also trying to make your service the definitive place to buy the media products themselves…

You could take this still further. Traditional broadcasters have had it pretty easy. They had regulated but basically pretty neutral carriers that they paid cash money to. Then they got to broadcast a set of TV and radio programmes when made most sense to them, and marketed against the relatively limited number of other networks who constituted their competitors. The explosion of TV stations made that situation a bit more tenuous, but that’s nothing compared to the enormous changes that are coming up. Given that there’s value in the long tail, and that programmes are increasingly time-shifted and watched at the audience’s convenience, we can predict with some increasing accuracy that we are approaching a time of addressable and permanently online programming, downloaded or streams or distributed on-demand.

Basically this is broadcast media becoming more like the web. And when you have a web-like ecology of programming out there, then you need mechanisms for finding programming. The mediators in this environment have tremendous power – they can build collaborative filtering mechanisms or page-rank mechanisms or whatever to move you from one type of media product to another. They can sell advertising on their services to direct you to one type of media rather than another. On the web these mediators are in competition with one another – search engine versus search engine, e-commerce venture versus e-commerce venture. But if these mediation mechanisms are built into the very hardware you’re using, then you essentially have some form of lock-in. This is why – in my opinion – it’s really really good for Sky that they control the EPGs on their platform and the PVR functionality, but less good for the BBC.

In a nutshell, early adopter consumers are working around the current short-falls in entertainment technology, and that suggests that there’s a market for new and better media-handling devices. And there’s a hell of a lot of money and power to be made in this environment too – both in terms of directly making cash from licensing software and selling appliances, but also in terms of controlling and influencing the interface between consumers and the media they might want to consume.

Now read Part Two: How to get a device into people’s homes that opens up these markets and these possibilities and lets people do more stuff with their stuff.