Video loses its chains

24 Jun 2004

While the world still swoons over MP3 players and white iPod headphones are the fashion items du jour, the industry is already looking ahead to a generation of handhelds capable of displaying moving images. In other words, the video walkman could soon be a reality.

In anticipation of their arrival later this year, Forrester Research has issued a briefing note on what it calls portable media players (PMPs). Forrester’s Paul Jackson emphasises that video brings with it a new set of barriers and, so far, a lack of content services. On the other hand, mobile devices with video capability will be aggressively priced, he predicts.

Forrester defines the category as: “A portable device with built-in colour screen, power and data storage that enables a consumer to receive and enjoy a large selection of rich media content (including high-quality audio and still and moving video) outside the home.”

Helping to speed their arrival into eager consumers’ hands is the fact that these systems can be assembled from readily available components, Forrester says. Storage will be essential: one hour of compressed video takes up 300MB, which means that PMPs will typically come with 20GB capacity. Headphones are a must and an 8.9cm backlit colour screen should be the minimum standard.

The face of the device will feature a simple user interface; a directional pad mounted on the front of the unit, along with play, stop and pause controls.

One major challenge to overcome will be the trade off between having a light device and one that has sufficient battery life. These two factors are normally mutually exclusive. Forrester compares this to Apple’s iPod that has been the object of criticism over the thorny issue of battery life. “Manufacturers need to ensure that their solutions are robust,” says Jackson.

Consumers will also need ways to put video content on the player. The USB or FireWire interfaces are likely options, although a direct capture method that can transfer files from video sources or cameras is another option. “The lower transfer speed of wire-free solutions, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, means that they are not yet viable alternatives,” adds Jackson.

The backdrop to all this is a three-pronged consumer device market. Productivity systems such as PDAs are meeting communications devices such as mobile phones, while entertainment units such as games consoles and portable audio players are converging on the same space.

Forrester remains sceptical about the so-called ‘device convergence’ trend but unquestionably, systems with multiple, sometimes overlapping, applications are making their way onto the market. “The future belongs to those companies that can create seamless digital content experiences for device owners. Combining the three core elements of content provider, content store and mediator, and device to deliver a compelling experience brings us a small step closer to the vision of the digital home,” says Jackson.

These devices are not the stuff of drawing boards — French hardware maker Archos has had a video player for the past two years, although its early efforts were in the realms of test-bed technology — a demo rather than a commercially ready product. Looking ahead, however, Forrester predicts that the next three years will be a learning period for those involved. “Devices will sell in small quantities to those technology fetishists who simply must have the latest thing. A market will develop for these players by 2007, but this will be either as small as the current PDA market or based on a ‘Swiss army knife’ of a device that offers lots of things, not just video playback,” it says.

Forrester has also identified another crucial stumbling block. Whereas people can listen to music in most places and on the move, combined sound and moving images require a greater degree of concentration. “Video viewing requires far more engagement and only suits those who are sedentary and outside their normal environment,” is Forrester’s assessment. “The oft-quoted examples of travelling businessmen and bored children in a car are both clichéd and limited — and also better served by portable DVD players or laptops and in-car entertainment or gaming devices, respectively.”

Other current drawbacks include some technical issues and the lack of commercial content. Television and movie studios are likely to want a scenario where digital rights management and copy protection mechanisms are in place before committing to the PMP format.

The attention these devices will receive in gadget magazines and lifestyle publications towards the end of the year will probably be out of proportion to actual hardware sales, Forrester suggests.

“Given the lack of commercial video content for PMPs, the questionable demand for video content on the go and the severe technical hurdles that have yet to be overcome, PMPs won’t rock consumers’ worlds for years to come. However, battle lines are being drawn now, with industry alliances, standards and marketing spend,” it adds.

There is no doubt that media content is going digital, but unless you’re the kind of consumer who absolutely must have the latest and greatest stuff, the category is best classed as ‘one to watch’.

By Gordon Smith