Thursday, March 22, 2007

Online video is like online music (mostly) because TV networks are like record labels (except when they are not), but video is not at all like audio (despite being created the same). Confusing? Such is the attempt to draw parallels between disruptions in the various entertainment industries. On a very high level digital video is repeating the history (in the Hegelian sense) of digital music (and for that matter digital text), except at a much quicker pace. However at any level of detail, you see that the story of online video defies blithe comparison to the story of online music.

For instance, Apple TV shipped this week to many pronouncements that it will do to the video industry what the iPod did to the music industry (for instance Carl Howe). Such pronouncements reflect a relative ignorance of the iPod's place in the disruption caused by digital music and a complete ignorance of how different the case of video is from the case of music.

First of all, let's distinguish between what the iPod gets credit for (unbelievable) and what it actually did (still pretty remarkable).

It did not create the mp3. It did not develop the first digital music player. It did not solve the interface problem for small devices (don't believe me? decide for your self; Apple already decided). It did not even make paying for downloaded music commonplace.

It did bring all these things together into one well designed package, but most importantly it made digital music desirable to the average consumer and for that it built upon the success of iTunes (the program, not the store) in making digital music accessible. This was no small feat. In 2001, digitizing the music you already owned was a chore even for the technically literate and iTunes brought it down to "Rip. Mix. Burn". Shortly thereafter, they released the iPod to provide "1,000 songs in your pocket", the brilliance of which was not even recognizable to Mac enthusiasts. This one-two punch improved upon two things we all loved dearly: our existing music collections, and our original tape-based Walkmans. Once Apple, repeated this combo for the Windows platform, the lock was complete.

Wow, we said, ripping is just like making tapes from our CDs and LPs and iPods are like Walkmans except without all the manual actions (fast forward, flipping the tape, carrying multiple tapes). The experience and therefore the desirability leapfroged the CD player starting from the first revolution in portable music (the Walkman). The music industry has been unable to accommodate the shifts in mentality and demand that arose from consumers desire for a digital music lifestyle...and has suffered greatly for it.

AppleTV, while noteworthy technology in it's own right, doesn't fit into the story of video the same way the iPod fits into the story of audio. While the iPod allowed us to easily digitize content we already own and take more of it with us into activities we could take it into before, Apple TV lets us buy content we used to get for free and watch it in the same place we used to. Huh? Some may argue that this allows "time shifted" viewing and breaks down the advertising model of television, but this has already become common without need of additional hardware or per show costs via PVRs provided by cable companies. Some may argue that this let's media on my computer (presumably photos, music, and home movies) be accessed in my living room, but what precedent is there to say that is best it remedies a backwards compatibility problem. Apple TV just doesn't have the character dressings of the iPod.

You can't equate the iPod to Apple TV without a huge counter-factual caveat: that the iPod would need to plug into your existing stereo system to work. But you know what would be equivalently game-changing? A 30-inch+ iMac form factor device with the guts of the Apple TV, plus typical flat screen TV inputs and a PVR function. Now that would be worthy of being called Apple TV.

No comments: