IPTV/VoD: The tortoise and the hare
How complacency is stunting the industry
What we can do, though, is push video content progressively "over the top" or through a private ISP circuit onto some form of hard disk storage, like a PVR, media player, or desktop PC for playback later. The trouble is the vast majority of IPTV set-top box devices out there as we speak have been built for deployment in countries where realtime streaming is possible and already been in effect for years. Offering a TV guide based on XML data and HTML menus is easy with an in-built browser making requests to a web server somewhere. Getting 1GB video files down the line takes a lot more, even when you can cache the most popular material at the BT exchange at the cost of co-location fees.
Until capacity increases and the BT network becomes viable for delivering video, we will have to produce set-top boxes that progressively download DVD-quality media over the internet that we have to wait for. As most "live" streamed internet TV now uses Flash Video, set-top box vendors need to integrate the Flash codecs onto silicon to allow us to suck download material from Google Video and YouTube for offline viewing. Centralised playlists built using XML and stored on the internet to be edited and managed through a web browser are also a compelling feature that again broaches the divide between the PC and the TV.
Downloading video content "over the top" doesn't solve the issue of ISPs footing the bill for content distribution. Net neutrality may very well just be coming to an end unless content providers contribute to the bandwidth costs their products generate. All we need to know for now is that the audience is there and there is significant demand. We have been too caught up in the guessing game of whether consumers will take what we give them digitally to focus on the true problems, like how on earth we get the material to them without making them want to throw the TV out of the window.
Digital media is all about one thing, and almost only one thing – portability. MP3 files can be transported anywhere, and devices like iPods, Walkman phones, and USB thumb drives mean your music can go with you wherever you are. It's now the turn of video, although it has bigger requirements due to its size and complexity. Wherever there is a screen on an IP-connected device, there can be IPTV. DRM in itself is pointless for lots of reasons, but the reason it's commercial suicide is that it negates the most powerful selling point of digital material – its portability.
Consumers want to take their media with them wherever they go, and to share the things they have heard and watched. The world is screaming out for the content industry to provide for it. We need to be able to play our media anywhere, and we're willing to pay for it if we get what we want. And the first law of business is give the customer what they want. Because of that portability, the rights to access the digital content after we've obtained it need to be attached to an individual person, not a territory or some rights window controlled by a big media broadcaster.
P2P has created the market of distribution, whether we like it or not, and whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. The catch is that the market is now becoming disintermediated by the stampede of high street customers now wanting to buy directly from content owners instead of their middlemen. It has no distributor or agent with a stranglehold they can wield to monopolise their industry. Naturally, there are vested interests from those who are threatened, from the likes of high street retailers and broadcasters who traditionally buy it on our behalf and decide when we can watch it. Niche is the new mainstream when it comes to a globalised audience.
Consumers also desperately want back catalogue "long tail" content, and for simple reasons. They cherish memories, they are curious and the big production names don't necessarily distribute material that appeals to their individual niche tastes. Yes, they want the latest movies, but they are more compelled by the all-you-can-eat buffet of digital archives and enjoy getting lost in them. The trick is how to give them the choice of hundreds of thousands of hours of it so they can find their way easily and not feel totally overwhelmed.
The hare in Aesop's fable is an industry thinking it is way ahead of a tortoise consumer simply because it goes to trade shows and reads market research reports about future technology. Content owners, technology vendors and network owners need to face their fears, their commercial barriers and study the way customers consume. The high street customer isn't dumb, and is already miles ahead. But not because of technical understanding – because of the need to work out problems in the home that should be simple and common sense. The boat's already left, and hardly anyone who wants to be on it has actually boarded. You either listen to your own customers or they speak to you by voting with their feet.
Digital TX Limited is a London-based provider of technology and consultancy solutions for interactive digital television and broadband media. Alexander Cameron can be reached at email@example.com.
As well as co-ordinating the birth of the IPTV Consortium (IPTVC), Alex is now offering a great value one-day workshop course on IPTV and Video On-Demand (VoD) specifically for web and media professionals. It can help you get up to speed on the latest technologies, content deals, operators and applications across the world, and offer immense value in identifying both new opportunities and threats for your business and personal career. If you would like more information, call Alex on 07986 373177 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Readers who quote The Register as their source will receive a 10 per cent discount on the course fees.