Forecasting the Portable Media Center

I was headed out yesterday for a family Easter dinner and unfortunately had to leave right as the Michigan State/Kentucky game was headed to the second overtime.
What to do? Well, seeing how I didn’t have to drive, I brought along my handheld
TV.(It’s a nice little 2-inch Casio color screen, with VHF/UHF receivers. I think it cost about 100 bucks). On the way home four hours later, I realized I didn’t tape (yes, tape, not Tivo–unfortunately)
Arrested Development. Easy fix–turn on the little telly and watch me some

All this got me thinking about portable media centers, the PSP, the planned Tivo To Go and the future of television. Given what has happened to music, it is clear that video will be headed towards portability as well, even if Steve Jobs is right when he says video and gaming are “foreground” activities. So who is going to make that killer app and/or killer device that will carry the concept into the future like the iPod did for music? The future rests on the shoulders of those who can find that perfect union of content, delivery and device.

To explode like digital music, video (TV and movies) needs the following:

  • a defacto standard file format
  • easier and legal ways to "rip" media we own (DVDs) or have recorded (Tivo and other PVRs)
  • a cross-platform application/user interface for managing, sorting and viewing content (a la iTunes or Windows Media Player)
  • a medium for purchasing, renting or subscribing to content (iTMS, Napster, Netflix, etc)
  • a battery- and user-friendly portable media center

Stage One: Content

If Napster was the Paul Revere of the digital music revolution, then Apple/iTunes is George Washington. Mp3s and digital music existed long before iTunes (the software, not the store) and even Napster. In much the same way, copyrighted video content has been swirling around the web for years. But unlike music, a defacto standard was never reached. The mp3, for better or for worse, became the simplest, most agreeable way for music files to spread around the globe. Files are small, can play on all computers and with multiple players, and sound pretty good (to the average person).

Video meanwhile, is still searching for that one format that trumps all others, either due to ease of use, ease of encoding or just old-fashioned word of mouth marketing. We've got Quicktime, WMV, AVI, MPEG, DivX, and a few sorted others. They all have their good points and bad points, but nobody really stands out. Search for content on the web and you'll find all sorts of options.

Meanwhile, methods for creating our own content are either difficult, illegal or both. Before Winamp and RealJukebox, encoding your own mp3s was a chore and left only for the technically savvy. These programs made ripping a cd as simple as "Insert CD, click Import, play mp3." It was and still is all legal. To do that with a DVD, not only do you need to seek out complex software made for techies, you would be breaking the law. DVDs, you see, come with copy protection not found on compact discs (until recently, that is), and do circumvent these controls is to violate the DMCA.

So much for fair use, huh? If portable media centers (PMCs) are going to truly become the "next big thing" in digital media, this is the first of many changes necessary. The other most viable option for creating our own content would be converting our digital recordings from Tivo or other personal video recorders (PVRs) into a format that can be played on computers and portable devices. Tivo recently introduced such a service, dubbed Tivo To Go, but it requires a PC and a home network with connected Tivo box.

So, Tivo and friends, you need to make it easier to get my shows onto my PC or my Mac. After that, someone else can take over the next stage.

Stage Two: Delivery

For now consider this conversation only in terms of television content. Say I have a Tivo and have recorded shows, then copied them to my computer hard drive for later viewing. What format are they in? Well, for now Tivo To Go only works with Windows Media Player 10. First problem if and when the get this working on a Mac–unlike iTunes, which is markedly similar on PC and Mac, WMP is not. There is no queue, library, or advanced features for the Mac version. This is going to be an issue when I start to compile, say, a season of Arrested Development on my machine. Even with WMP10, unless you have a Media Center PC, there is much room for improvement here.

So what we need is an iTunes for video. The name iMovie is taken already, so how about iVideos? A one-stop shop program that organizes and plays my video content. Now I can, if I want, watch an entire season of 24 by launching a smart playlist or playing the show like I would an album in iTunes. My library would be browsable by Genre, Show or Season. And I could make playlists, use metadata like Actor, Creator, Running Time and more.

So not only would this iVideos be a way to view content on my computer, it would be a conduit for getting such content on my portable device. Digital music converts to roughly 1MB per minute. Digital video converts to roughly 10MB per minute. Therefore the key step in this process would be to deliver the content to my PMC in a way that maximizes video quality while minimizing file size.(Yes, I am aware this occurs already with PMC software and WMP10). With software like what Apple uses with the iPod photo, my library of videos would be reformatted to fit my small screen. Video quality would be maximized, file size would shrink and all this would happen in a matter of minutes. On a 3-inch screen, I don't need DVD-quality video, so why fuss with larger files? This way I can fit that entire season of 24 on my 60GB PMC, along with some music and photos.

There are, of course, other ways to get content than from my Tivo. What if, like in reality, I don't have one, but still want to watch TV shows on my computer or PMC? I need a place to easily get them. BitTorrent is great, but even that can take quite a while, and I don't need HDTV programming on my computer screen. So an iVideos Store would be nice. There I could rent, buy or subscribe to my favorite content in different formats: fullsize for computers or mini for PMCs. Rentals would expire after 2 viewings with the option to buy. Subscriptions would be like Tivo for my computer, and I could keep the shows as long as I kept paying, but again have the option to buy at the end of the line.

Free content might include short clips like those featured on Comedy Central and VH1, or they could be commercials (I'd love to have a copy of the new Adidas 1 ad from Spike Jonze). If somebody offered such a service (Tivo? Apple? Netflix?), I'd be there even without a PMC in hand.

Stage Three: Device

So I've got the content, and a way to get it. Now I just need something to watch it on when I'm away from the computer. Portable DVD players are good for watching tiny movies, but for TV I want something smaller. The iPod's too small for TV, and current PMCs and handheld TVs are a bit to clunky for my taste. The PSP has shown you can put a relatively large screen in a package that is still pocketable (though it might make your pants fit a bit tighter).

I want mine svelte and sexy like the PSP or iPod. No wasted space please, and no external speaker. I don't need to be sharing tiny sound from my tiny screen with onlookers. A hard drive of at least 60GB is a necessity. A couple of cheesy games would be nice. The ability to play music and view photos/slideshows would be a major bonus. Easy connection to my digital (still and video) camera would be helpful. Firewire connectivity would make life a lot easier. I want maximum battery life. And last but certainly not least, I want LIVE TV!!

Seriously, this is an area I think is vastly overlooked in this market. If I have a little TV screen in the palm of my hands, why would I only want to watch prerecorded programming? If it's my über-device that goes around wherever I do, having a TV-tuner seems like a logical extension of the portable media center concept. This way, I could either watch my favorite Arrested Development episode, or catch the new one live on the way home from Easter dinner. Put this whole package in a device I can buy for less than $500 dollars and I will start saving my money now.

Of interest:
Apple, Tivo and the iConcert
iPod Mania
Where is the iPod video?
Microsoft PMC home page