The Future of Television: It’s Not the iPod

January 13, 2015

Steve Jobs got it right last year, when he ridiculed the idea of playing video on the iPod in a conference call with press and analysts. In a classic Steve moment, Jobs had a snappy sarcastic comeback to a question by Mike Wendland of the Detroit Free Press about Apple’s plans for video on the iPod: “You know, our next big step is we want it to make toast. I want to brown my bagels when I’m listening to my music. And we’re toying, you know, we’re toying with refrigeration, too. You know, one of the things that I say around Apple, I paraphrase Bill Clinton when he was running long ago when he said, It’s the economy, stupid. I say, It’s the music, stupid.”

So, what made Steve change his tune? I think he couldn’t resist the chance to exploit the value of video as a gimmick. Jobs is the ultimate showman, truly the P. T. Barnum of the digital age. He knows that Americans love TV even more than listening to music. According to the latest Nielsen ratings, Americans are watching more TV than ever, with the average household logging an average of 8 hours and 11 minutes per day.

By invoking the magic of TV, and the incantation of hit shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives, Jobs knew the iPod’s hype-factor would skyrocket. And it sure did, grabbing headlines around the world for a feature he made fun of just last year. Perhaps his new motto is “there’s a customer born every minute.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still think the guy is a genius, and the iPod is an elegant easy-to-use device that has become the Walkman of the 21st century. But remember the Watchman? No? I didn’t think so. That was Sony’s handheld TV set that bombed in the market.

Does that mean the video iPod will bomb? Nope, because it’s still a great music player. It’s just not a great video player. Here are some of the problems:

2” vs 42” – the hot TV right now is a 42” HDTV display, not a 2 ½” display that doesn’t even offer full NTSC TV resolution. Let’s not forget that a sizeable portion of the population would have to do a lot of squinting to see the display.

Gee, my arm is getting tired – the iPod can be strapped to your belt or hang from your neck when you’re listening to music, but you’ve got to hold it out in front of your face to watch TV on it.

That run-down feeling – the batteries only last about 2 hours when playing video, so you may not get to see the end of the show.

It’s the content, stupid – or perhaps I should say it’s the stupid content. Call me a snob, but even though I’ll admit to watching a fair amount of TV, I’ve never been a fan of either Lost or Desperate Housewives. And even if I could watch Curb Your Enthusiasm or Battlestar Galactica, I’d be missing a lot of detail on that tiny screen. I think the small screen is suitable for watching talking heads, so CNN or MSNBC might be OK, but news is something you want to watch live… yesterday’s news is, well, yesterday’s news.

Pay it again, Sam – I hate paying for something twice. I’m already paying Comcast almost $100/month for their Digital Platinum cable package, so why should I have to pay again for the same content. The iPod’s video doesn’t tap into your PVR, or even your DVDs, unlike the iPod’s music which does let you copy your CD collection.

OK, so the new video iPod isn’t a very good portable video player. Is there anything else worth looking at? To start with, it’s worth noting that notebook computers have become a much-used device for watching DVDs. Just take a stroll down the aisle of the plane on your next flight and you’re sure to notice that a lot of people are watching much better movies than the in-flight offering on their laptops, many of which have very watchable displays.

Another popular way to watch video on-the-go is using one of the many portable DVD players. Netflix, Blockbuster, and the like can keep these puppies fed with a vast selection of titles, and you can record TV shows (yes, even Lost and Desperate Housewives) right off your TV using a DVD recorder. Note to Steve: a blank DVD to record onto costs a lot less than $1.99.

And there is a new class of gadgets that serve as portable PVRs – kind of like a TiVo-to-go. The newest of these is the pocketDISH announced last week by Echostar (a/k/a Dish Networks). Astute gadgeteers will recognize this as a repackaged version of the Archos portable PVRs that have been on the market for a while. Astute investors will recognize this as a result of Echostar’s $10M investment in Archos.

But the real solution to take-out TV may be streaming servers. Someday you may be able to stream the contents of your home PVR to the portable device of your choice, be it laptop, PDA, cell phone, or some as yet unannounced newfangled gadget. In fact, clever techies can already do that with the Slingbox or with a PC-based PVR and a high-speed net connection. Or, maybe Google and Comcast have more on their minds than merely buying into AOL. I wonder if Google Video might someday stream everything I can currently get on my aforementioned Comcast Digital Platinum package? Hey Steve, how would you like them Apples?


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