22 December 2009

content mobility

Is your content mobile?  Do you store all of your data locally and have it replicated to the cloud and formated in a way so that you can access it on any device at any time in any location?  I'm sure that there are some people who can answer "yes" to this question but I've yet to meet anyone who can really live this dream all the time.

There are a lot of limiting factors that make this difficult:

  • Formatting content
    • Does it size to the screen appropriately?
    • Does it need to be re-encoded (e.g. video format and size)?
  • Permissions
    • Is it DRM protected?
    • Can the DRM be transferred or does it need to be removed?
  • Storage
    • Do you have a service that allows you to maintain storage?
    • Do the costs of storage make sense?
  • Retrieval
    • Can your content be retrieved quickly?
    • Is the cost of retrieval economical?

In our household, all of our television content (and most of the movies we watch) are available to any PC and some smartphones - and what's not readily available is usually available to be streamed via services like Hulu.  In this case there are 2 pivotal products that help to make this type of content mobile.  First a DVR (e.g. a TiVo or in my case an older piece of tech called a ReplayTV).  This allows for time shifting of your content.  I'm sure everyone is familiar with these type of devices by now, so I don't need to extol the virtues here.  The second piece of technology is a Slingbox.  While they have been around for at least 8 years now, they're not as widely known as you might suspect.  These devices basically act as a TV but instead of putting the wires to a physical display, it transmits the signal over the internet to your laptop or iPhone or other device.  Thus you're basically watching the content from your TV (or DVR) as if you were sitting in front of it and changing the channels etc.  When combined with the DVR you can now not only time-shift but also place-shift which to me is the ultimate ability to for getting your TV content on the road.  

Okay so in my house, I happen to have 2 ReplayTVs (DVRs), one of them is hooked up directly to the Slingbox and nothing else.  Since the ReplayTV device can network with each other, I have the ability to record and view the content from either of the boxes.  In addition at one time, I set up a server in my garage that contained all of my other media and ran a software program that emulated the ReplayTV which let me network the server with the DVRs and thus have oodles of available content anywhere and anytime I wanted.  Of course this was long before the days of Hulu, Fancast and the others and I wanted to be able to entertain my kids with the shows they liked when we were travelling so it was a good solution at the time.  In addition, there was a 3rd party program I ran that allows me to extract the content from the ReplayTV so that it can be downloaded onto any of the device in my household, thus letting me either stream any of my content in real-time or transfer the content for later viewing.

Just this morning there's rumors that iTunes is going to offer a subscription service for ABC and CBS content.  The number being floated is $30 a month - but in typical Apple fashion, I'm sure it's going to be wrapped in Quicktime which means that for a mobile device it's got to be an iPhone or iPod Touch -- no other phone or portable media device will do.  And of course you don't have NBC content and some of the other producers so it's only a partial solution.

I'd be happy to give up cable and just get my content directly through my internet pipe whether it's on my phone, laptop or desktop - but I have to be able to view that content when I'm not connected (e.g. sitting on a plane) and I don't want to have to pay outrageous prices per month or per MB in order to get it.  Today I'm already paying for my phone, a data connection surcharge on the phone, cable monthly bill and  internet monthly bill.  It all adds up real quick.  Wouldn't it be great if I could get more for less?  After all much of my content can come over the internet, but if I'm having to pay multiple providers to get it and can't move it to the mobile devices of my choice, then my content really isn't mobile!  Plus my home solution while elegant in the abstract isn't something that most people can setup effectively nor is it something more than a hack to make do with what we've got...

And of course there are other types of media too...  Think about all of the NPR/CBC shows that I and my family listen to -- Car Talk, Marketplace, Vinyl Cafe, Says You!, etc.  For those that have podcasts, I need to have an active podcast client to pull them down automatically; yet some shows still don't podcast so I have to listen live or put together more technology for time-shifting radio shows (RadioShark never worked for me).  Then there are photos, documents, etc -- everything locked away in it's own space with it's own technology and issues.

While I'm not advocating to move everything out to the cloud nor do solutions like Pogoplug seem like the right long term path; this entire space has to be rationalized and made simpler for everyone involved.  It's way too complex and everyone is focused on the technologies, bundling or point solutions...  If we were to focus on delivery of personalized content directly to the devices desired by the user (no device limitation), in real time or cached, and without any unnecessary extra fees, I'm willing to bet that users would happy flock to this kind of service.

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