Ubiquitous Wi-Fi, Media, and Advertising

Apple’s new iPod Touch may just change the world — and the online ad industry.

Before you click away thinking this is yet another breathless Apple fanboy screed, let me assure you it’s not the actual device I’m excited about. It’s pretty darn cool (and I wish I had one right now), but it’s what it does that hints at what could change the future of media and advertising. It provides the first glimpse at a future of ubiquitous, on-demand media content via Wi-Fi.

Why does this make such a big difference? Control, friends. Control.

The real battle over digital media (MP3s, digital video, etc.) hasn’t really been a battle over stealing or sharing. Those are just symptoms of the real issue, and they’ve all contributed to debates around it. Control is the real issue.

People want control over their content. They don’t want to be locked into only playing it on certain devices. They don’t want to be able to access it only from their PCs. They don’t want to be able to see or hear things only when media creators or distributors want them to see them. They don’t want to be told they can’t go running with their music, can’t go for a drive hearing something they paid for, or can’t go to friends’ houses and let them hear the content they’re excited about. They want the freedom to hear or see what they’ve bought wherever and whenever they want it.

Controlling media is about portability. It’s about the ability to share media with others. About access to the kind of media you want without having to care about who’s providing it. About experience: experiencing the media in the order you want, where you want, and when you want it.

So far, all the battles have been fought between a public that wants these things and an industry that wants to ensure it gets paid. Because it wants to get paid, it doesn’t want people giving other people media it created. If a file changes hands, according to media industry logic it’s a piece of content the industry’s not getting paid for. We could debate that until the proverbial cows come home, but that’s the central issue behind DRM (define). The media industry wants control, too.

Imagine if it were possible to give people the kind of control they want without the media industry having to give up the control it wants. If the media industry could not only get paid but also generate revenue through advertising. And if we advertisers could tap into the seemingly endless stream of media consumption to reach the increasingly difficult to reach audiences we want to reach. Quite possibly the Holy Grail of digital media, huh?

While services like satellite radio, on-demand cable, and subscription music struggle to provide the media industry with the control it wants with the access the public wants, they forget that we already have a system for ubiquitous, on-demand media content delivery: the Internet. The only problem (so far as the media-consuming public is concerned) is the Internet as a delivery service has been tethered to PCs (literally by Ethernet cables or wirelessly via Wi-Fi). No matter what kind of content you want, you have to access it through a computer. If you want to take that content on the road, it must then be turned into a file that can be uploaded into a portable video or music player or burned onto a portable storage device, such as a CD or DVD. Once that happens, any control the media company may have had over that content is gone. Poof!

From an advertising standpoint, it’s even worse. Once someone has a media file on her computer, that file can’t be used as an advertising vehicle. Sure, if she wants to watch it live online, ads can be inserted into the stream. But as DVR ad skipping has shown, people aren’t too keen on that these days. They want to be in control.

Free people from their PCs and things start to get interesting. That’s where the Wi-Fi capability of the new iPod Touch comes in. People can now get the media they want, when they want it. They can watch or listen to their content outside their homes and offices. They can access all the media in the world from their portable devices via the delivery system we’ve already built. They’ve got control. Problem solved.

Well, not exactly solved. Wi-Fi isn’t ubiquitous yet. Not even close. Even if you have Wi-Fi in one place (as many of us who travel for business know all too well), it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to access the service you subscribe to when you go somewhere else. While anyone with a cell phone can pretty much get service anywhere in the world if they want it (worldwide, there are currently 2.7 billion cell phone subscribers, according to Informa), Wi-Fi users are still forced to deal with arcane log-ins and spotty coverage. That’s just plain stupid. Until that stupidity ends, battles over digital media will continue.

Yet digital media problems can be solved in one fell swoop: ubiquitous and cheap (even free) Wi-Fi access that allows roaming as seamless as we have with our phones. Combining that with digital media devices that can provide access to online content would change the world of media as we know it. No more fighting over sharing or piracy. No more forcing consumers into compromising over pay-per-song and subscription services. No more worrying about media being stolen simply because people want control over it. The iPod Touch provides us with a vision of a world where when we want to watch or listen to something, we just do, without the rigamarole we currently deal with.

Once access to media is ubiquitous, media and entertainment change completely. Consumers are happy because they can control their media. Media creators are happy because they can control their media and get paid for it by providing ubiquitous, on-demand, streaming media subscription services that actually work. And advertisers are happy because they now have access to a lot bigger audience than before.

How could it work? Here are a few ideas:

  • Media providers allow consumers to virtually program their own media streams. Sites such as YouTube are way too lean forward to truly be entertaining in the way TV is. Allowing users to program playlists of media content where they can sit back and watch for a period would make the experience much more TV-like and would allow advertising to be inserted in a much more intelligent way than the current (and irritating) pre-roll ads we’re playing with.
  • The industry provides a choice between ad-supported free channels of content and premium services that contain few or no ads between media. Give consumers the choice.
  • Media providers worldwide figure out how to get on the WiMAX (define) bandwagon to blanket the world in wireless Internet access. The benefits are enormous, even to cable companies: imagine if nobody had to deal with cables anymore. The first movers would have a huge advantage, too. Comcast could bury Verizon by providing ubiquitous Wi-Fi and selling Wi-Fi phones. Or Verizon could bury Comcast. It’ll go to whoever gets there first.
  • Hardware providers (such as Apple or its rivals) produce extremely cheap devices with little or no storage built in. Why would you need an internal hard drive or Flash memory if you can access media via the air? These devices could drive the price of portable media players down and dramatically speed up adoption.
  • Ubiquity leads to a much simpler and more satisfying consumer experience, also increasing adoption. If people could just turn something on and go (as they do with current MP3 players) while having access to literally all the content in the world, why wouldn’t they?
  • Advertisers take advantage of some interesting new advertising models, such as Pelago‘s pay-per-visit advertising, which charges an advertiser only after someone actually visits a physical location after seeing an ad. Privacy would be a major factor, of course, but not so much if consumers also benefit from the system by receiving coupons or other wireless promotions as they shop.

    Will all this come to pass because of the iPod Touch? I doubt it. But we’re witnessing the first steps in the right direction. As we move into the future and continue to debate digital media (and the right way to advertise in it), remember one thing: control. Give people that and it’s a whole new world.

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