Let Me Count The Ways of VOD

May 2009 – Adrian Stroud

I’ve got a thing about redundancy, not the type that starts with your boss coming into your office and closing the door behind them, the type that comes from having more of something than you need.

The sort of redundancy I’m thinking of first came to my notice with CD players.  For people of a certain age, the conversion from vinyl to CD was a significant leap of faith. It was a conscious decision that was carefully considered and expensively executed.  I recently counted all the bits of equipment in my house capable of playing an Audio CD – there are at least 18.  Some of these devices, I can bet have never played an Audio CD in their life.  Many are gathering dust at the back of a drawer somewhere because, although redundant, they are serviceable and my pre CD brain can’t cope with disposing of something with such valuable functionality.

I’ll bet that within a few years the same thing will happen with VOD and any bit of kit associated with a screen.  Of course, to some degree I’m predicting the past here – the whole point of this piece is that I’m going to count the multitude of ways that my suburban home is already equipped to deliver a VOD experience, despite me never having made a conscious effort to achieve VOD readiness.
I delight in being resourceful (green and mean) by resuscitating old PCs for the children to use.  I have three children, each with an elderly but functional PC in their room. I have a laptop for work, and so does my wife and we have a more up-to-date ‘family’ PC downstairs. That’s six PC’s between five of us.  I didn’t count the Media Center under my TV because I don’t use it as a PC. I got the Media Center for music and photos.  In my mind it is Av equipment, as is my Sky HD and PS3.  The PS3 was my Christmas present from the family.  At 48 I must have been quite a demographic anomaly in terms of the target group for the PS3. When asking for advice, the young sales person in GAME asked my wife what sort of games her son enjoyed.  I think it is a fantastic piece of kit and it serves as our lounge Blue-Ray/DVD /CD player as well as my shoot-em-up game machine.  I have a PSP that I rarely used and a couple of years ago we got a Wii for the children.  My phone is 3G but I must admit I’m unsure about my wife’s phone or my daughters – so let’s leave phones out of it.
We are a bit unusual in that we also have a Sky+ that feeds another room. This extra Sky+ is a luxury legacy of having been a Sky employee.  Remember, I’m only counting equipment that is broadband enabled and capable of supporting VOD.  I have a surround sound amp and projector too so the wiring hanging out of the back of my TV console looks like medusas’ head.
OK, excluding phones, I recon our household currently contains 12 pieces of equipment capable of delivering an IP based VOD service.  Other than making me an obvious target for a burglary, what does this tell us?  Did some of those devices surprise you? The Wii for example?  The Wii has no hard drive so it is not an obvious candidate but a limited VOD service has been announced for this year in Japan.   The PSP?  It also has no hard drive but when within reach of my wireless network it will happily stream Video from the PS3 to its lovely little screen.  The PS3 is a very capable piece of equipment.  It has the best picture quality of any device in my house and is a perfect VOD platform. It has plenty of computing power to operate a beautiful and responsive interface. No wonder Sony have big plans in this area with a service launching this summer.   Despite claiming that the PS3 is ‘mine’, the girls and their friends all have a log-on and they love it.  When Sony launches their PPV film service we will be early adopters.  If it offers up-to-date content (see No Long Tail Please – I’m human) my dependence on Sky and my trips to Blockbuster will reduce significantly.
Sky’s VOD service to the STB is probably twelve months or more away.  If they limit that service to Sky broadband customers it will be an irrelevance to me.  I’m a happy AOL broadband customer and the lure of another VOD service might not move me to Sky Broadband.
At Decipher we have just equipped one of the studios  with the latest Samsung TVs that has an Ethernet connection and supports ‘widgets’ that let you run useful little internet applications like Twitter,  Flicker and Yahoo News feeds but we also understand the menu will shortly include BBC iPlayer.  So, if I had one of these, I could already have four devices associated with my main TV that could be independently VOD enabled.  I can’t be very unusual in this regard.
When gazing into the future it is tempting to look for simple scenarios and stories.   In the mid 1990’s when I was involved in BT’s ground breaking VOD trials it was such a monumental  task setting up the video servers, high-end STBs and network capacity that it looked certain to be a business only a few big players could ever be involved in.  Now, companies like IPVISION will build you a white label IPTV service, including content acquisition. All you need is the marketing clout to shift a lot of STBs and business plan that recoups that outlay. Now the future looks messy and complicated with overlapping platforms in most households.
My guess is that the end-game for all this is that in the next five or ten years the average home will have many devices (in addition to PCs) potentially capable of accessing free and premium VOD content. Most will be redundant because VOD capability will be a secondary function of a piece of equipment that is really excellent at doing something else.  Some will be gathering dust in a cupboard like my CD ‘walkman’ – not because of any distinct lack of functionality but because they are not aesthetically pleasing or are not quite as easy to use as the latest generation of device.
If I was a content owner I’d be thinking about standard deals that get my content onto every platform and in front of as many people as I can.  I’d be very hesitant about giving exclusivity to a particular service – I’d just want a bug slug of the revenue from whoever succeeded in getting my content in front of a paying customer.
And here is my main point – When you are in a situation of significant redundancy and there is are many VOD services offering largely the same content under similar terms, the differences in usability only have to be trivial for a device or service to drop out of use altogether and be relegated to the dusty cupboard.   Aesthetics, usability and the importance of personalisation are subjective and it would be surprising if the tastes of one generation were the same as another.  Every member of the household will have more than one way of accessing VOD and they will be able to choose the service and device that suits their whim.

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