net.wars: My TV

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 09 December 2005

"Life 2," the invitation said (actually, I guess it said Life squared, but I was too half-witted to realise it). Since it came from Microsoft, it was just a good thing it didn't say "2.0". Like the Microsoft Home on view in Seattle, the idea is to show what your life would be like if you were surrounded by Microsoft technology and it all worked. Yes, it's a fantasy.

Wendy M Grossman

But it's a harmless fantasy, though it would have worked better for me if one of the actors playing a role intended to show off the I-can-run-my-business-at-home angle hadn't looked alarmingly familiar. (I never did work out exactly who he was.)

We went through the usual gamut. Husband runs small, traditional business reinvented with PDAs and databases. Work and study in the local café. Wife works running a charity from a home computer. Kid studies via an online portal. So far so, well…ordinary. (Why is it these demonstrations are always so Pleasantville? Why don't they ever include, say, electronically tagged felons doing their prison time at home? It was good enough for Martha Stewart.)

And then they showed off the brand new Media Center in the corner, and there it was, listed as an ordinary channel among all the other channels: Personal TV. And suddenly you could understand that Video on Demand has a purpose in life after all. It's just not the purpose the cable companies, telcos, and movie studios are hoping.

What "they" (in the broadest sense of "they") – presumably including Rupert Murdoch, given Sky's recent acquisition of Easynet – seem to have in mind is thousands of personalised new ways for us to buy a sighting of their content. "Personal TV" is of course just one channel in a big block of dozens, and what Microsoft is showing off there is its TV platform, the beginnings of IPTV.

Video on demand is one of those dreams that – like Britain's ID card – persists without any real evidence that it's hugely desired by its prospective consumers except in a very limited way. Arguably we actually have video on demand, in the form of libraries of DVDs and videotapes and the content stored on PVRs (to say nothing of all those TV shows out there available for illegal download), but that's not what they mean by the term. They mean that they control the library and we pay for access to it, via either an ongoing subscription or Pay-Per-View. In 1999, when BT was conducting its first ADSL trials, it built its systems on the basis that users would want video-on-demand and be interested in the Internet only as a distant second. They had it exactly backwards: everyone was interested in the Internet, and very few in video on demand.

If the history of the Net is any guide, there are two predictions we can make. One: whatever Murdoch is doing online is wrong. Two: Personal TV will be the big hit of IPTV.

Murdoch has made a number of forays onto the Net, and each has been spectacularly wrong, either in terms of the technology involved or because of the timing (my personal favourite was his acquisition of Delphi, the ancient text-based system, just as it had become clear that graphical interfaces were taking over the world). He's buying Easynet.

If he's buying Easynet thinking it will give him a broadband platform from which to launch IPTV services, then logically you would have to suspect that either IPTV isn't going to be successful or the people who are successful at it will be those who aren't burdened with owning their own networks. Or the technology is about to change completely, and Murdoch's got the old one.

In the history of the Net as a medium, the most enduring successes have been found in providing the infrastructure for hooking users to each other. EBay: giving everyone with junk in their attic easy access to a worldwide market. AOL: it sells content, sure, but the bedrock of its success (and CompuServe's before it) was chat. Email. Instant messaging. Blogs.

Personal TV is the most logical next step: personal channels you can subscribe to through your normal TV setup. Grandchildren. Fish tanks. Limited-access paid high-end programming. Garage Band's Song of the Day. And so on. There are only ever going to be a very few mass-market TV programs that become worldwide successes on the level of Desperate Housewives or Friends. But there are going to be millions of bits of TV that a dozen people want to see, even if the production quality is terrible.

And of course, it won't always be terrible: Morgan Spurlock managed to have worldwide success with a well-produced feature film whose initial budget was about $75,000. Most people aren't Morgan Spurlock, but the costs of digital production are going down all the time and the tools keep getting better. There will be opportunities out there for people to design Personal TV program templates for us all to get sick of, just like the ubiquitous PowerPoint ones.

What was amusing was that our guide commented that you could share content with friends. If I put on the Marx Brothers in Night at the Opera now and enable you to watch it with me from your house, what time will it be when the copyright police arrive?

Amuse yourself: , , ,

Supersize Wendy, or yourself - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).