Santa Delivers New Forms of Media Delivery

Whenever I want to take the pulse of popular culture, I check out some of the sites that list the most popular stuff people search for. After all, with the North American Internet population now well over the 50 percent mark, looking at what users are doing seems to be a pretty statistically valid way of seeing what a good chunk of the population is doing. One quick look at Google Zeitgeist (a summary of the most popular Google searches around the world), and it’s easy to see what’s hot and what’s not.

Considering it’s the holiday season and I was curious about what kind of stuff people want for Christmas this year, I surfed over to Amazon.com’s “Most Wished For” section. I wasn’t all that surprised to learn two Apple iPods are the “most wished for” electronics products. The iPod’s growth currently outpaces the growth of Sony’s Walkman, with over 2 million shipped in Q3 2004 and an estimated 4 million in the pipeline for the end of the year. All told, analysts predict Apple will sell 23.6 million iPods by the end of 2006. That’s nearly one iPod for every 10 Americans.

Portable digital media player growth spurred a new trend in media delivery: “podcasting” (define). Invented in part by ex-MTV VJ turned digerati Adam Curry, podcasting aficionados use software such as iPodder to access over 500 different audio programs, ranging from homebrewed tech commentary to professionally produced radio programs. Using sites such as Podcast Alley, users can decide which programs they want to hear, then listen to them on their iPods whenever they want. It’s sort of like an Internet audio version of TiVo.

There have been several podcasting stories in mainstream media lately, including CNN, The Independent, and Time. The buzz is definitely building. Some marketers are even exploring the advertising possibilities of podcasting, though podcast ads are definitely on the bleeding edge at present.

Don’t get too hung up on podcasting. It’s definitely in its infancy and hardly near mass-market penetration. But don’t dismiss it, either. We should view podcasting as a first glimmer of what the media landscape will look like in the future.

Technological developments and consumer acceptance tend to follow a fairly predictable curve once early versions get going. Podcasting is a natural extension of Internet radio, just as TiVo, though revolutionary in its ease of use and TV integration, is just another extension of the ability to “download” programs from TV to portable storage media, such as video tape. We’ve been able to rip and download Internet radio stations as MP3 files for a while now, using products such as Streamripper, and we can even time-shift broadcast radio with products such as the Griffin radioSHARK. Over time, technology people want tends to become smarter, more ubiquitous, and easier to use. That leads to greater adoption.

So when looking at a technology such as podcasting and trying to figure out how it’ll affect our lives and businesses, don’t get hung up on the particulars of how it works and what it does. Instead ask, “Where’s this going?”

What’s the next logical extension of this technology? What’s it going to allow us to do in the future? Where’s the trend vector headed?

Digital media’s power is it can easily be transported, stored, manipulated, copied, and transmitted — nearly at will. The wild legal thrashings of groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the MPAA are merely the death throes of industries being completely transformed by this power. Accustomed to controlling the means of distribution (disks) and having lost that ability, they’re fighting back with lawsuits and legislation. All the while, technology develops. Doing all the things those groups don’t like becomes ever easier, faster, smarter, and cheaper. The technological vectors continue to move into the future.

Where are we headed? Looking at the trends and new technologies already out or in the pipeline, consumers are taking complete control of their media. That’s bound to continue until it becomes the norm. Today, we have the iPod. Tomorrow, products like Creative Labs’ Creative Zen Portable Media Center will allow us to transfer digital video from our PVRs (define) and carry it in small, compact, easy-to-use devices.

Heck, you can buy a DVR today that can burn DVDs (e.g., Toshiba’s Digital Media Server) and carry programs to watch on your laptop. Tomorrow, as RAM becomes cheaper and storage capacities increase as prices decrease, we’ll see portable digital audio and video blend into single devices. Think “video iPod.”

As advertisers and marketers, we must think now about how this inevitable trend toward time-shifting and on-demand media will change our entire industry. We’ve built a business based on the premise we can deliver a certain message to a specific population at a specific time and be reasonably certain they’ll see it. In the future, as technology becomes easier to use and people consume media whenever and wherever they want (and easily skip our messages), that model won’t work the way it once did.

At the same time, as bandwidth increases (broadband penetration already exceeds 50 percent) and wireless becomes ubiquitous and far-ranging (thanks to technologies such as WiMAX), digital media will be available to huge sections of the population, on demand, all the time. Today, kids can buy Mattel’s Juice Box and watch prepackaged digital video, listen to MP3s, and view photos. Imagine what will happen when that Juice Box goes wireless and can download TV, radio, and games on demand. Cities such as Philadelphia are going wireless. It’s not inconceivable that in a relatively short amount of time, such a device will be commercially feasible.

Consumers want control of their media, and they’re taking it. Wishing the trend away is pointless. The time to develop new models is now, before we’re overtaken.

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