Next-Generation RSS: Time-Shifted Streaming Media

Driving to work the other day, I listened to the very fabulous WebTalkGuys Radio Show on my iPod. Once at work, I began my morning info-gathering ritual. First, I scanned my RSS newsreader to see what’s new on my favorite news sites and blogs. Then, I hopped over to ClickZ and began reading Kathleen Goodwin’s nifty column on RSS as a replacement for email newsletters.

As I read (and reread Rebecca Lieb’s earlier RSS piece), I realized over the past year, I’d stopped reading about 90 percent of my email newsletters. Instead, I’ve become RSS newsfeed-dependent.

The reason is simple: Spam made email untenable for me. I have to sift through gobs of spam (despite the filters) to get to my personal and business correspondence. The idea of doing extra work to get a newsletter unconsciously pushed me to direct most of those newsletters to the trash bin.

Sorry, publishers!

As I pondered my changed reading habits and archived-radio listening, I realized my behavior goes deeper. I’m not just switching information formats, I’m shifting time. That’s where big changes will occur.

Time-Shifting: Then and Now

The term “time-shifting” has gotten a lot of play since the arrival of TiVo (and other PVRs), but the idea of time-shifting goes back to the first recorded media. At the end of the 19th century, people listened to gramophone recordings of live concerts. They were time-shifting. No longer did they have to attend live (read: “linear” or “real-time”) concerts to hear music. Once recorded, people could listen to music whenever and (if they were strong enough to lug the device around) wherever they wanted.

Over the decades, other recording media made time-shifting more convenient. The VCR included video before TiVo moved time-shifting to a whole new level, making it automatic and digital.

Though PVR penetration hasn’t achieved enough critical mass to really impact on the advertising world, current indications (including a prediction by Rupert Murdoch that satellite companies will start giving away PVRs) are the devices will be fairly ubiquitous in a few years.

Don’t believe me? Ask PVR users if they’d ever give up their boxes… and prepare for an earful.

How does this connect with RSS and Internet radio (or video)? RSS allows Web users to do for Web content as PVRs do for television. Rather than go to Web sites to find out what’s new, a quick scan of any RSS headline grabber (check VersionTracker for some examples) allows me to time-shift my Web viewing. RSS aggregators grab content whenever it’s posted, then combine it into the user’s personal “Web channel,” customized for his interests.

Time-Shifting Streaming Media

I do the same with my iPod, in a different format. The WebTalkGuys make their weekly show available in a downloadable MP3 format, so I’m able to time-shift radio listening to my own schedule. I may never be able to listen to talk radio at work (it’s tough to write and listen to talk simultaneously), but the MP3 format allows me to be an avid listener on my own time. I get the whole radio experience (commercials and all), but it’s under my control.

Doing this involves a fair amount of work. Though I could use Replay Radio or RadioLover to record the show automatically, I still have to move the shows to my MP3 player as individual files. Not tough, but not as convenient as it could be. That could be a missed opportunity.

According to Arbitron Internet Broadcast Services, 50 million Americans recently used Internet audio or video, a decent-sized market. Lest you think it’s not a viable advertising medium, John Battelle reported in Business 2.0 that MSNBC has completely sold its inventory of 15-second spots on its online streaming video portal. With U.S. broadband access nearing 50 percent (see The Bandwidth Report for the latest numbers), online audio and video media are sure to grow in the next few years.

The streaming media experience is still less than optimal. Some “stations” out there stream continuous programming, many other sources require users to click and hunt for content. Quality is an issue (less so for audio), but most viewers put up with it for the convenience of on-demand video and audio.

The Next Step: RM RSS

RSS is a simple standard for Web content syndication. The next step in its evolution should be a way to standardize and syndicate rich media broadband content.

Now, we can download a few radio shows and listen to them on MP3 players. With personal digital video players (e.g., Creative Labs’ Creative Zen Portable Media Player), we’ll be able to do the same with online video. But we must individually hunt down, then download, the files.

A rich media RSS standard (RM RSS) would allow publishers to make such content available online in the same way news articles are today via RSS. Instead of being stuck with streaming audio or video, we could create personal broadband “channels” with the RM RSS viewers.

If these channels could be synchronized with a portable device (or with set-top boxes with integrated digital audio and video players), the digital information landscape begins to look very different. RM RSS readers downloading broadcast-quality content over broadband and connected to TVs could allow anyone to program her own cable channels… without a cable company.

Advertising could get very interesting.

It won’t happen tomorrow. But the digital music lessons of the past few years are any indication, and as broadband expands, a system for automating the digital distribution of rich media assets is inevitable.

Consumers like control. Today, they download MP3s to portable players and listening when they want. They use RSS to customize their own newsfeeds and download them to PDAs. They watch video on demand.

Tomorrow, they may use something like RM RSS to customize their own video channels on portable video players, and take those custom channels with them. Consider how to deal with that now. Or, scramble to deal with it later.

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