There are a growing number of commercial service providers that can deliver digital content all around the globe. To make the best of this technically flawless delivery of audio-visual digital entertainment the playback apparatus is no longer the bottle neck. Technology for reproducing clear pictures and crisp-sound has matured and is in reach of the masses. The only things lacking in these sophisticated digital to analogue converters are ease of use and compatibility. Consequently creating better interfaces for finding, buying and viewing ever-expanding sea of content offers a tremendous opportunity for differentiation.
A perfect media device should be well adapted to all needs a user may ever have. Devices for in-home entertainment most often need to satisfy the shared demands of a group of users. To accomplish all media consuming tasks in all conditions the functionality would need to change to its surrounding environment. Unfortunately the environment is the variable that can only rarely be changed by the user. Do-it-all devices that take into account many parameters are very complicated to build and most often fail miserably. Consequently different types of devices have evolved to fulfil particular circumstances.
The user decides what kind of environment he or she wants to use the device in. As technology matures selecting the device for chosen environment is unfortunately becoming increasingly complicated. Digitalization of services and ubiquitous network infrastructure is changing the priorities. People are getting used to media items being accessible anytime and anywhere. Media consumption is also becoming a matter of self-expression and question of personal choice. Instead of just one homogenous view provided mass-media on the given subject same things are discussed in very disparate social groups.
The key to describing the environment is not so much the physical habitat, but the context. There is a big difference in one sole person, close friends, few strangers or a mass of people following events unfold. Media items all must have their place and this could be described in universal, cultural and personal preferences. Each enviromental preference should be allow for a different type of user interface. Different kind of restrictions should also take effect as the intimacy levels wary depending on the audience.
Contextual information can increasingly be gathered using information technology. As using information from just one source does not create a full picture of the consumption context so some kind of aggregators will be needed. It is really up to the consumer to either trust these service providers with intimate details of their life or not. It seems device vendors are unlikely candidates for such trust. From consumers point of view if anybody is trusted the important thing would be to ensure that data gathered over the years the does not lock you in. Portable media preferences profile would solve this dilemma.
Adopting these new consumption habits will be a slow. Especially as no easy popular choice is offered people often rely on existing habits and just try to find contemporary replacements. Portable players, television tuners and game consoles are all devices that have existed before digitalization of services. As long as people use these devices just like they have used previous generations of devices no fundamental change in media consumption will happen. The device manufacturers have started to offer content services dedicated to their platform. The good thing is that this is a natural way of slowly directing people to digital distribution. Problem is that the people are tied to platforms chosen on the basis of design or technical ability not on economical content.
The device manufacturer acting as a service provider is in a position to exert a very powerful control on the whole value chain. The creative content market will not work properly if the bottleneck is controlled too tightly. Off course starting with trusted brands of programs and artists is a great way to attract customers. However the distribution services themselves will not grow if no opening is left to bring in new creative content due to anti-competitive arrangements. Thus the true test of the services’ viability is how well the gained visibility is used to create trust by assimilation for new artists and new services. Open content market would be in all parties interests. For the consumer new service platforms can offer not just another unnecessary expense, but also new easier ways to navigate, procure and view content.
Today we already have multiple device manufacturers trying to create an ecosystem around their own vertical offering. The openness of the markets relies on the interfaces the services provide to content providers. There is no compatibility with other vendors’ devices. As no standards or APIs are released the only way the offering is going to get better is by increase in competition between the service providers. In a competitive business environment each service provider would need to match other companies’ service offering in the user interface front. As long as the prices for hardware stay on the current level consumers are just locked-in on their initially chosen platform.
It is no surprise that in this somewhat monopolized environment also successfulness of a content delivery platform is measured by its device support. The best way to measure this is number of “devices on the field” in the publications target segment. This deployed base is the number that has to be compared to price required to support multiple incompatible device platforms. Most often for just one platform is feasible and thus the demographics really play a key role in deciding between a gaming platform and a simpler media adapter for example.
There have been multiple technical platforms available for some time now. The traditional home electronics vendors have based their solutions to embedded hardware. A more recent trend has been the birth of home media computers which rely on software. On paper both camps have their strengths. One was supposed to be reliable and the other extremely versatile due to extendibility.
In real life it seems that the set top boxes have not been all that reliable. Bugs in the embedded software stacks have been cumbersome to fix. The PC-based solutions on the other hand haven’t been extendable due to absence of APIs for key components like IR remote controls and decryption. There is just few parties that really have been able to exploit this opportunity. In some cases real additional value has been created and the investment has been rightfully rewarded. Generally it can be argued that the market growth has been slow compared to the money at stake.
Just describing the environmental factors has been a challenge so it is no surprise that we are just taking the first baby steps of integrating the experience of viewing the same content using different platforms. There is hope and time will surely cure most of the problems. From independent producer’s point of view fragmented market is unfortunately just another needless hurdle. It will take guts to clear the valley of death.