It's getting damned annoying to be a TV freak.
Years ago, I was told HDTV was right around the corner. I was told I would soon be able to watch my favorite programs in super-high resolution, surpassing even the definition of modern DVDs. I heard a digital video recorder (DVR) would replace my VCR, allowing me to effortlessly record TV programming, watch at my leisure, and fast-forward through advertising. I was promised an integrated home network in which all my electronic devices would converse fluently with one another and give me control of all kinds of digital lifestyle options -- from anywhere in my house.
It ain't happening. And it's getting really frustrating. Where we stand...
Last year, I ponied up a fat load of cash to buy a big-screen TV capable of displaying HDTV. I thought it was time. I thought the format was gaining traction. What I've discovered is even though I shelled out all this cash for the TV, access to high-definition programming is ridiculously expensive. Satellite TV requires me to buy a high-definition receiver, usually in the neighborhood of $700.
The cable company says I have to subscribe to digital cable, already more expensive than analog cable. Then, I must pay a surcharge for an HDTV "sidecar" box to sit next to my cable box. Then, I have to pay high-definition programming fees on top of that.
Forget getting HDTV over the airwaves. The guys at my local electronics retailer practically laughed out loud (seriously, it was embarrassing) when I asked them to recommend an antenna to pick up high-definition signals. I knew all this going into my TV purchase, but the signs pointed to rapid improvement. A year later, improvement hasn't happened.
ReplayTV manufacturer SONICblue announced last week it would sell off various products and file Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The plan has ReplayTV going to D&M Holdings, parent company of consumer electronics manufacturers Denon and Marantz.
I can't say I was surprised. As a ReplayTV owner, I hope the sale goes through and D&M continues and improves the product.
TiVo and ReplayTV have both struggled to add subscribers, falling well short of analyst projections. TiVo is the market leader in standalone products. Despite aggressive marketing and some significant partnerships with companies such as DIRECTV and Comcast Cable, TiVo's subscriber base tops out at just under 625,000. ReplayTV subscriber numbers lag well behind.
Both companies suffer from customer service deficiencies, to the point where after spending over two years as a DVR zealot, I'm seriously considering giving up on the category as a user. If you've read earlier columns raving about how the product will change the TV world, you know how serious a reversal this is.
It's interesting to see this market begin to fragment. Cable companies are rolling out video-on-demand in many markets, a feature that approximates the functionality of a DVR without an additional set-top box. Think of it as a DVR installed at the cable company. For now, programming choices are limited. They'll expand.
Microsoft is pushing its Media Center edition software, which includes DVR functionality. EchoStar has a DVR service for subscribers. Various big-name consumer electronics companies (including some that once licensed TiVo software) are rolling out their own, non-TiVo DVR units, some of which are capable of recording HDTV.
It all boils down to a lot of mediocre options and no clear winner.
Progress is being made here, with Wi-Fi standards evolving and technology introductions such as Apple's iLife, but it's still a royal pain to try to play MP3s through my main stereo system. I've got all sorts of digital audio and video sitting around in various places, and I still can't interchange files without jumping through flaming hoops.
Who's to blame?
Why aren't we making the kind of progress we'd all (well, me, at least) like to see? These markets are extremely complex, and I can't begin to fathom all the various reasons why this stuff isn't happening. Increasingly, at least from a consumer perspective, it's not lack of technological advancement that's causing the delay. The thing I keep returning to is digital rights management (DRM).
In the music world, incredible fighting broke out when Napster become hugely popular. Studios and distribution houses could've avoided the whole debacle by embracing the technology early and agreeing on standards for copy protection. Instead, they stuck with the status quo or fought so intensely they alienated consumers. They wanted to control distribution to the point where even if I bought a CD and "ripped" it to MP3, I couldn't play it on my portable MP3 player. Some new CDs won't play on computer-based CD players or rip to MP3 format. Sure, artists should get paid for their work. But industry players' greed is now hurting consumers (and the industry).
The same basic situation exists with the fight over video rights. There are so many schemes for protecting high definition it makes my head spin. None of the parties concerned seem able to agree to a standard. Again, the result is extremely slow growth. Consumers and advertisers are ready for HDTV. Digital TV, including high definition, is a new marketing platform. As it beings to gain ground, so will iTV.
And that's what I'm really waiting for. Hurry up, already!
Jeremy Lockhorn leads the emerging media practice (EMP) at Razorfish. The team functions as a think-tank on new technologies and next-generation media, and operates as an extension of current client teams. EMP is focused on driving groundbreaking marketing solutions for clients. Jeremy is a filter, consultant, and catalyst for innovation - helping clients and internal teams to understand, evaluate, and roll out strategic pilot programs while reinventing marketing strategies to leverage the power of emerging media. Jeremy joined the agency in 1997 and is currently based in Seattle, WA. His Twitter handle is @newmediageek.