What’s So New About New Media?

watching_tv3.pngI was fortunate enough to have attended the New Media BC’s Fusion Forum in Vancouver last week. I was exposed at this conference to ground-level developments on both the creative and business sides of the fast-evolving new media industry.

I realize now that new media is our collective path to the future of information and entertainment consumption.

With annual gross revenues of over $2 billion in British Columbia, it’s already an industry that rivals logging.

And new media is experiencing explosive growth while most traditional industries are stagnant or shrinking.

But what is new media? And why is it so important to the future of not only our economy, but also our collective culture?

In a nutshell, new media is all about leveraging new and emerging technologies to re-imagine the way we experience and consume culture and its artifacts.

New media covers such disparate technology environments as gaming, web, and mobile, and it challenges us to adapt our cultural and economic imperatives to them.

For example, the 30-minute comedy sitcom has been a cultural staple for decades, but its star is on the wane. Yet, the sitcom clearly offers considerable benefits to viewers: where are those benefits going to be realized under the umbrella of new media?

On that point, it’s important to realize that new media isn’t about recasting traditional media in new formats. That was tried before, about a century ago, and it didn’t fly.

When Edison introduced the moving picture, producers’ first instincts were to just shoot traditional stage plays as though the camera were a member of the theatre audience. They viewed this as a way to cut costs and increase distribution: you’d only have to run the play once yet you could hold performances any number of times.

Clearly this didn’t fly.

Film was its own medium, the original “new media,” if you will. It demanded its own artistic and business models.

Over the past 100 or so years, film evolved on both levels. It’s now an established, even entrenched, staple of the world economy. As an artistic format, it’s arguably been fully developed.

The business and art of film was the direct response to a new technology that was developed during a period of intense innovation at the dawn of the 20th Century.

Thanks largely to the evolution of the digital platform, new media is the eye in a contemporary storm of innovation.

As a result, new media will reformat our cultural hard drive.

While it will not kill traditional forms of media, such as film, television, and newspapers, new media will significantly marginalize them. After all, even older forms of traditional media such as live theatre and spoken-word storytelling, were not completely obliterated by film.

We can expect to see a few significant cultural shifts as a result of new media.

The first will be the mobilization of experience.

As a result of both larger cultural shifts and technological innovation, we’ll be more likely to engage with new media messages “off-seat” and on our feet. This could occur on the sidewalk as we walk to work, or it could be in the kitchen as we rush together a meal.

Another shift will be in the format of the content we consume. First, it will become smaller and lighter. Second, it will become both more and less rich at the same time.

Nokia studied audience receptiveness to different forms of new media and found that, as far as mobile video content goes, the absolute optimal length of a clip is 2 minutes and 47 seconds.

So, really, the goal of the new media producer is to reinvent that half-hour sitcom I mentioned in such a way that an audience member can consume it in under three minutes.

But just because television and film have ruled the roost for the better part of 50 years doesn’t mean new media consumers expect a rich experience.

Because the future of entertainment and information is all about the “snack,” super-lightweight experiences can be even more valuable.

Finally, there will be an increase in the commercialized nature of the content we consume, but the perceptible qualities of those messages will be less overt.

A strong trend, particularly in new media productions like Bebo’s Kate Modern, is the evolution of product placement in entertainment media. Sponsorships and embedded branding are also on the rise.

Thankfully, the days of commercials are soon to be over.

On this point, new media has largely been driven by business interests to date, as traditional media companies search for a business model they can establish and profit from.

This is not unlike the early days of film, when Edison’s partners and investors sought mechanisms by which they could recoup their investments.

It’s important to note, however, that it took a strong artistic evolution to truly develop the business model by which film could become profitable.

It will be likewise with new media, and many in the arts community are beginning to express an interest in some of the projects coming out of the new media movement. Peter Jackson, for example, was heavily involved in the game adaptation of King Kong.

Of course, the more broadly implemented offspring of new media — the “new film,” so to speak — will only survive on their ability to define and establish a profitable business model. And, in a sense, this is the holy grail of the current new media movement: the ultimate business model.

Free content subsidized by advertising of some form leads the current way of thinking right now. But it’s very early in this evolutionary procedure and I don’t think we’ve seen the ultimate business solution just yet.

I’ve personally been dedicated to a new media project for about a year now and it’s very exciting to be part of a significant shift that will impact both world culture and the global economy.

These are early days in the evolution of new media, however, as we’re still largely constrained intellectually and economically by ties to television, film, and other traditional media. I look forward to the day we completely break free of our chains to the past and experience a new method of cultural consumption.

Only then may we fully understand why audiences fled theatres in fear of being flattened by the cinematic train on Edison’s first demo reel. What will we run in fear from?

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, February 29, 2008.

Smart Nerds Always Finish First: Toshiba’s HD DVD Victory

adxGetMedia.jpegLike a wallflower at the high school dance, cool-tech poseur Toshiba dug out its pocket protector on Tuesday and slunk back into its role as the nerd of the technology industry.

A series of rejections from the cool kids like Warner, Netflix, and Best Buy left poor Toshiba standing all alone in the corner of the gym. And unless you’re Billy Idol, dancing with yourself is a lot worse than just putting those taped up glasses back on.

In other words, the modest manufacturer of spare parts for nuclear power plants and washing machines has decided give up on being part of the in-tech crowd: Toshiba has axed its next-generation high-definition DVD disc format, HD DVD.

This decision effectively hands the market to studmuffin Sony and its sexy Blu-ray disc format.

In the end, though, does it really matter?

The internet is poised to wipe out the market for physical movie media, anyway.

Amazon.com and Apple, among others, already offer downloadable HD content comparable to Sony’s Blu-ray.

So, was Toshiba’s decision submissive or sage?

Before I get to that, let’s consider the fact that we live in an HD era.

Movies and television are becoming less about stories and characters and more about Gregory House’s stubble and Kate Cattrall’s stretch marks.

Toshiba’s HD DVD was a rival disc format to Sony’s Blu-ray. Both were designed to replace DVD and usher in a new era of high resolution image and sound for folks who prefer their cinema served with a heavy dose of couch.

In 2005, the companies tried to reconcile their two formats. But in typical high school fashion, they instead decided to let their peeps fight their battle for them. So consumers have spent the last three years stiffed with a popularity contest between HD DVD and Blu-ray.

From the start, due to its haut geek heritage, Toshiba’s chances were slim.

Sony had all the connections into the cool crowd and easily managed to woo the requisite Hollywood types into its clique. (Remember Michael Bay’s drunken tantrum when Transformers was slated to hit HD DVD exclusively?)

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Blu-ray was just plain better — though that quality didn’t help Betamax in the 80s.

It was only a matter of time until retail overlord Wal-Mart delivered the ultimate snub last week by swearing off the HD DVD format altogether.

So with little fanfare, Toshiba likewise announced they were dumping HD DVD. That $480 million budget item will instead build a couple of factories in Japan this year.

The stock market breathed a sigh of relief and instantly bumped Toshiba’s stock by about 6%.

Sony was silently smug in the way that cool kids always are when they win.

But in the end, who cares? The internet is already eroding the market for physical movie media with downloadable high definition content.

So, despite the seeming victory of Blu-ray, Sony still faces an uphill battle regarding the market for high definition movies.

The painful reality for Sony is that Toshiba’s move is probably the right one in general.

The future of HD won’t involve physical media such as HD-DVD or Blu-ray discs. Instead, the internet will deliver the goods.

In the past, physical media such as VHS tapes and DVD discs made sense for bringing movies home.

But with the increase in bandwidth and the improvement in the quality of online digital content, the internet is fast becoming a much better solution.

Why bother with discs that have to be shopped for, purchased, stored, and (even worse) organized?

Why worry about discs that can be lost, damaged, or eternally loaned out?

From the internet you can just download the same thing on a whim and at a moment’s notice without any fear of the peanut butter fingers of toddlers. And DRM is the perfect excuse for telling your friends to go buy their own copy.

In the States, Amazon.com’s Unbox service offers HD movies for rental and purchase direct to your computer.

Apple offers the same in iTunes. However, with their wicked-cool Apple TV you can order and  download movies and TV shows right on your television.

Viewed in the light of the internet, some might say that Toshiba is more demonstrating wisdom than humility by handing the HD disc market to Sony.

After all, there are probably more losses than gains to be had with it. After investing billions in Blu-ray, it’s unlikely Sony will realize any return before internet-borne HD content obliterates the physical media market.

So as Toshiba sullenly sneaks out of the gym, we see that the clever child has spiked Sony’s punch with some Spanish Fly. Blindly incited to carnal market acts of seduction, Sony will lead its newfound hard media partners into many an illicit affair.

In the meantime, what’s Toshiba up to?

Heck, their new factories will be devoted to the manufacture of flash memory. And that’s the stuff that goes into iPods for storing HD movies that have been downloaded over the internet.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, February 22, 2008. 

The Fruits of Mobility that We Shall Never Eat

_MG_7949Large.JPGEarlier this week in Barcelona, the Mobile World Congress took place.

This is the single largest conference about cell phone and other mobile technologies in the world.

Technologies introduced here will cascade into the real world over the course of 2008.

The focus of this year’s event is on touch screen devices that are more like computers than phones, and the disrupting power of Google.

What’s more, this year’s congress represents the final nail in the coffin of CDMA, the equivalent of Betamax in the mobile telecommunications industry.

Somewhat ironically, probably the biggest trend at this year’s Mobile World Congress emerged last January at MacWorld.

That was when Apple introduced the iPhone, an elegant handheld computer that demonstrated to the mobile industry what a cell phone should be.

Technology leaders such as Nokia and Samsung were rocked into readjusting their approaches to mobile phones and the software on them.

And Motorola, once a leader with the popular RAZR, is now on the brink of folding their mobile phone business, due in no small part to the iPhone.

One of the major features of the iPhone is its fun and functional touch screen interface, and this is what virtually every handset maker is rushing to emulate, with mixed results.

As a result, touch screens are rampant in Barcelona this year.

Touch screen devices are designed to replace the buttons on your phone with a big screen that displays just the controls you need, when you need them.

The touch screen interface sounds simple in concept. But the difference between, say, Apple’s iPhone and HTC’s Touch demonstrate just how good and bad it can be in implementation.

Of course, there are some potential iPhone killers in Barcelona.

Garmin (yes, the GPS company) is set to release their Nüvifone later this year, and Nokia has juiced up their already lust-worthy N-series of handsets with a new awe-inspiring set of features.

Currently at risk of being an also-ran in the mobile phone business, Sony-Ericsson also announced a landmark new product, the Experia X1. This sexy-looking slider is destined to go State-side in the next few months.

A lot of talk in Barcelona surrounds some of the first public previews of Google’s new Android mobile operating system.

A mobile phone’s operating system provides it with its basic capabilities and offers us, as users, the “look and feel” that we interact with when we actually use a device.

The dominant mobile operating system, for example, is one hardly any North American has heard of: Symbian, which was shipped on over 77 million handsets last year. If you have a phone from Nokia, Sony Ericsson, or Samsung, you’re using Symbian.

More dominant in North America are RIM’s Blackberry, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, and Apple’s Mac OS X on the iPhone. But each of these hold a paltry portion of the market in comparison to Symbian.

So why would Google even bother to enter what, at first blush, is a market already controlled by a number of dominant players?

As usual, Google isn’t about status quo. Its Android is all about sea change.

Acquired three years ago in a private sale for an undisclosed sum, Android is Google’s wake up call to the mobile industry.

Android is the industry’s first step into what I call Relationship Technology. If you’re a regular reader of this column then you know that I consider RT the logical next step after Information Technology.

Most devices we use today, including computers and mobile handsets, are simply dumb conduits of stock information. RT, in the form of Google’s Android, is all about building a context around your current state of being.

Android maintains a constant awareness of where you are and what you’re doing so that any device it’s running on can constantly provide you with immediately relevant subject matter without any effort on your part.

By all reports from Barcelona, Android is in a very rough state.

There aren’t even any commercially-oriented handsets on show.

But when it hits the market later this year, Google’s Android will harken in a new era of mobile computing that will permanently change how we communicate — to a far greater extent than even the iPhone.

Finally, and this is of interest to many North Americans whose lives depend on the technology, this year’s Mobile World Congress is the swan song for CDMA.

CDMA is the telecommunications platform for two of Canada’s largest mobile service providers, Bell and Telus, and for a handful in the US, including Verizon. And simply put, it’s the Betamax of the industry.

The Mobile World Congress used to be all about GSM, CDMA’s arch-rival, and the dominant global platform by far.

This year, as almost an expression of pity, they let CDMA players into their show. It’s a cruel act of triumph, akin to Peter Pan forcing Captain Hook to announce he’s a codfish. A sort of, “In your face, CDMA.”

Because the simple fact is, none of the really cool technologies at the Mobile World Congress will ever meet a CDMA network. They’ll all be implemented for GSM-based networks around the world.

In short, Mobile World Congress 2008 is a wake up call to the North American mobile industry: time to upgrade, dude.

Alas, that day is likely far in the future. We’ll be stuck with afterthought handsets from tier-two technologies companies willing to service a withering platform for some time to come.

However, that’s what we have the internet for: to discover the wondrous technologies that are beyond our reach. We’ll just have to get used to wiping the saliva off our keyboards.

Breaking the Bonds of Television and Film

Image23.gifThere’s a wonderful new era in entertainment emerging that will do away with all of the inconveniences, expenses, and contrivances of “old media.”

That’s right, traditional television, film, and video are — if not on their way out the door — definitely headed for a transformation that will soon leave them almost unrecognizable from what they are today.

And this is not a moment too soon.

After all, let’s face it: cable TV sucks.

And it’s been that way for a long time. 15 years ago Bruce Springsteen shot up his television with a .44 magnum because there was “57 channels and nothing on.”

Today there’s just ten times as much of nothing on. What’s more, you pay through the nose for all that nothing.

Perhaps worse than television is film. You wait for an hour to get into the theatre, pay an arm and a leg for stale, greasy popcorn, then ruin your back in chairs that seem to have been built for the munchkin cast of Wizard of Oz.

DVD rentals are better than both of these experiences, but only marginally. After all, who wants to venture out in a snowstorm only to discover the disc you’re after has already been rented? No matter; it was probably damaged beyond all playability by previous viewers, anyway.

Television, film, and video: these are all forms of “old media.” And they’re really, really tired.

That is, they are methods of content delivery that suit the purposes of an industry rather than an audience.

Well, there’s a new generation of audience emerging with roots in the media piracy movement I wrote about last week.

They’re being raised by Napster, BitTorrent, and iTunes.

They won’t be satisfied by anything less than completely relevant content that they can access when and where they want it.

Wait in a line for a movie? Forget it.

Tune in to a show at a specific time, on a specific day? Whatever.

Rent a disc? Who needs the grief of physical media?

While the transformation from old to new media is far from complete, there are several internet properties online now that foretell the future.

Probably the most well known is Apple’s iTunes. Americans can now rent high definition movies through iTunes, and they’ve been able to purchase television shows and movies for a couple of years.

(We Canucks can finally buy TV shows, too, but the variety is limited to the most pithy Canadiana. Sigh.)

iTunes is an excellent entry point into the future of entertainment, but it’s tied down by the mentality of traditional media.

The store still delivers “TV shows” and “movies,” which fit well into the old model of entertainment. But they don’t necessarily translate well into the digital realm.

Some more exciting evolutionary online sources for entertainment content are Joost, Current.tv, Bebo, and (of course) YouTube.

Each of these new environments takes into account the native properties of the internet by integrating aspects of social media.

Joost hails from the Nordic minds of Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, the creators of Skype.

It’s an ambitious off-web desktop application that combines user file sharing with content from “broadcasters.”

Joost is what television would be with audience participation and without time constraints. It offers all form of entertainment media from animated shorts to feature length films for a great price: free.

Current.tv is the brainchild of Al Gore, and it’s now in the process of going public as a company.

It features video content that is largely user-generated and voted into distribution by the community. Much of the material on Current.tv is documentary and very edgy. And it’s an excellent representation of public interest.

Hailing from the UK, Bebo is a social networking web site first and a content provider second.

However, the site produces video content that is among the most cutting edge online.

Kate Modern, for example, is a soap-opera-like series of “webisodes” delivered directly into the social network.

Google’s YouTube, meanwhile, is the great grand-daddy of user-generated content, some of which migrates to more mainstream places. It was the birthplace of Kate Modern’s predecessor, LonelyGirl15.

While none of these sites, in their current states, define the future of entertainment media, they do share the themes that will define it.

Availability is clearly the most important factor. You can watch YouTube, for example, on standard mobile phones, personal computers, and many television devices.

The audience is also very important. All of these properties respond to feedback. In fact, last year Bebo killed the main character in Kate Modern because the community despised her so. (Imagine if we could convince Fox to kill 24’s über-annoying Jack. Yeah, whatever.)

And finally, cost is also clearly a factor. All of these properties are available at no cost to the viewer. Compare that to your current entertainment bill.

Of course, these properties — particularly YouTube — are so overrun with content that Bruce Springsteen would need Bruce Cockburn’s rocket launcher to sort it all out.

But at least, as an audience member, you have the right to take some pot-shots without hurting your computer.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, February 1, 2008.