If your TV was like a Book

Last month, Apple released their latest device – the iPad. It is capable of many wonderous things, and has many fabulous properties, but of all of them, for now I am interested in just three: its screen, its weight, and its ability to show video.

As various other manufacturers rush to market with devices to compete in the segment that Apple has just legitimised, they will most likely produce things that share those same three properties. However, as it is still early days, we don’t yet know for sure what people will end up doing with these devices. That’s why it’s so much fun to speculate!

The iPad has a 24cm (diagonal) screen, weighs about 700g (WiFi version) and can deliver TV quality video from the Internet to practically wherever in the house you decide to sit yourself down with it. If you hold it up in front of your face (about 60cm away), it’s as big as if you were watching a 120cm (diagonal) TV from 3m away. And, while lighter than a 120cm TV, it’s going to feel heavy pretty quick.

However, 700g is not very heavy if you’re willing to rest it on your lap, and there’s another category of content consumption “device” that is comparable in this regard: the book. I am willing to spend hours intently focused on a book while reading it, and a quick weigh of some of my books (using the handy kitchen scales) suggests the iPad is not unusual…

Which provides some legitimisation of a “TV-watching” scenario of a family in their lounge room, with everyone watching a show on their tablet device. (Assuming that you have overcome issues like individuals’ TV audio interfering with others and ensuring adequate bandwidth for everyone.) However, this scenario feels strange, even anti-social.

I am perhaps conditioned by the ritual of people coming together to share a TV watching experience. And before we had TVs, people came together to share a radio listening experience. But before broadcasting technologies, what did we do? In reality, this sort of broadcasting experience is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before that, presumably we all sat around in the lounge room and read books.

I’ve previously written on the idea that people prefer the personal, and that a personal TV experience will be preferred to a shared TV experience. The iPad and similar devices have the potential to enable this, through becoming as light and portable as books.

“Netbooks” also have similar attributes to the iPad. However, they tend to weigh at least 1 kg and have screens that are smaller. So, while future Netbooks might have the right form factor, it certainly isn’t common yet. The iPad is the first mass-market device that properly fills this niche.

The issue of the scenario feeling anti-social is still a little troubling. While our ancestors might have looked up over their books and engaged in a casual chat, momentarily pausing their reading, this is harder to accomplish with a video experience. Not only are the eyes and ears otherwise engaged, making casual interruption more difficult, but the act of pausing and resuming is not as easy either.

I suspect that while we’re now reaching the point where hardware can fill the personal TV niche, the software is not yet ready. We may need eye-tracking software that pauses the video when the viewer looks away, integration of text-based messaging alongside video-watching, and other adaptations to the traditional video player software.

I’m keen to see what competition in this new segment produces.

Communications Technologies

After I’d written the previous post on Communications Industries, I worried that the two properties that I’d used as the axes to obtain the set of four industries were perhaps the wrong ones. I suspect that for any 2 x 2 matrix, there are probably an infinite set of alternative axes that produce a given set of contents. For example, instead of the public/private distinction, I might have chosen asymmetric/symmetric. But that said, the properties “feel” like good ones to me, so I’ll stick with them for now, while allowing myself to luxury to throw them away later if they turn out not to work.

Anyway, to continue my musing…

Taking the 2 x 2 matrix from last time, and populating it with examples of the products and businesses within those industries is helpful in building up a picture of the characteristics of each quadrant:

One of the first observations is that all of these examples of communications require some sort of network. The different quadrants have different types of networks, clearly. I’m interested in seeing if there are some common characteristics shared by the examples in the e.g. public or discrete categories.

Another observation is that the older examples make use of analogue or manual methods, while the newer examples are digital or electronic. Analogue technologies are probably better aligned with a continuous approach to communicating, as digital technologies are, almost by definition, discrete approaches. Bits are bundled together into packets, and sent across the network in discrete chunks. However, each chunk may carry something very small, perceptually, and so can effectively emulate a continuous channel.

It seems that in gathering up examples, I have found comparatively fewer examples of continuous communication than distinct communication. An explanation of this could be that discrete communication has historically been based around a particular physical medium (a letter, a pneumatic capsule, a book, a film reel, a CD, etc.) which was the means of expressing the communication. The large variety of physical media possible have resulted in different products and businesses based around them, and the characteristics of those products have been carried forward into the digital world. (Although without the conservative force of those physical constraints, we are seeing some of them merge.)

On the other hand, continuous communication networks developed after their discrete cousins, when technology was finally able to capture and transmit two of the senses we use to experience performances. Aside from the relationship to a particular sense, there was no physical medium to constrain the communication, and hence the communications networks were more versatile. Fewer types of continuous communications networks were needed to accommodate the range of things people wanted to communicate. Any sort of performance at a venue (theatre, concert hall, sporting ground, office, or home) could be conveyed to somewhere else.

That said, there are definitely constraints of various kinds on continuous communications networks. The other senses that might be used if you were physically present are not accommodated. In terms of vision, you are provided with only a window into the other end, rather than the whole vista. In terms of sound, you are provided with a limited frequency and dynamic range as well as a loss of some of the spacial characteristics. But, unlike some of the discrete communications options, there is also a much reduced need for literacy, as the experience aims to provide a “natural interface” through conveying key human senses.

I think I’ll leave this discussion there for now, and pick up the differences between public and private later.

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Communications Industries

This is something that I’ve been mulling over for a little while, and I’m hoping that by posting it here, the discipline of having to write it down will clarify it for me. And, perhaps people reading this will comment on the ideas and help flesh them out a bit more.

A variety of industries have developed that deal with interpersonal communications at a distance. Each of them has crystalised around their own set of technologies. However, there seems to be a blurring of the boundaries between them these days, and in order to better understand what this means, it could be helpful to understand how the underlying technologies of these industries relate.

If you simply consider two properties of technologies used by the communications industries, it appears that you can draw some reasonable boundaries. The two properties I’m thinking of are privacy and continuousness, and by building a simple 2×2 matrix out of them, you get the following diagram:

Publishing, Messaging, Broadcasting and Telephony

Admittedly, the separation between Public and Private is a little fuzzy. Does sending something to 10 of your closest friends make something public? What about 100? What about 1,000? Does it depend on the friends? However, I think it is reasonably well understood that you can have private group communication, not just private one-on-one communication. I think we also usually know when we are engaging in something that is highly (publicly?) visible, and something that is private, despite the occasional exception.

And while the distinction between discrete and continuous communication ought to be unambiguous, it too has its fuzziness. A discrete communication is one where the communication itself has a clearly defined boundary, e.g. an image, a movie, a book, a song, or an article. While a continuous communication lasts as long as the communications channel is maintained, e.g. a TV channel, a radio channel, a telephone call, or a video conferencing session. Recordings tend to be discrete while performances tend to be continuous.

But, what if you watch a movie on the TV, or listen to a song on the radio? This is an example of convergence between the different industries. Once a movie or a song is published, the broadcast network can distribute it, although it loses some of its discreteness in the process.

Similarly, there is convergence between the broadcasting and telephony industries. A reporter can call into a news station, and have their story broadcast out to the viewers. Or when your call is put on hold, you may end up listening to a live radio station.

Convergence between telephony and messaging is well understood within the telco realm. You can call and leave a voicemail for someone, which becomes a message they can later retrieve. Or it might be transcribed and then delivered as a text message. Or it could be send as an audio attachment in an email. Or instead of leaving the voicemail, you could record an audio MMS and send that instead. And if a SMS is sent to a fixed phone that cannot display it, a phone call can be generated instead with text-to-speech used to render the message audible.

However, what has become most interesting of all recently is the convergence between messaging and publishing. This blog post is an act of publishing. However, I could have sent it via email to a few of my friends, and that would have been messaging. Instead of emailing it, I can make it available via Facebook. If it is made available to my network of friends, it is messaging. But, with the click of a button I can change my preferences so that Notes are public, so it is publishing.

One of the interesting aspects to social networking for me is that some networks are designed primarily around a messaging model (like Facebook or Friendster) and others around a publishing model (like Myspace or Twitter). As the social networks all compete to offer similar features, the sharp lines between the models get very blurred.

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