unmediated: Why Aren’t Portable Media Players More Popular?

It’s a conundrum isn’t it? Portable media player products have never been smaller, more capable, or more affordable, yet they are still an underdeveloped market. I put up a survey on the videoblogging yahoo group asking how people watch videoblogs, and the great majority of respondents seem to watch on a computer rather than a portable device. I suspect the reverse is true for audio-only “podcasts”, though.

I’ve been thinking about this, and I have a few ideas:

  • There is no cultural history of carrying video around to watch. before MP3 players there was a whole generation who got used to “walkman”-style personal cassette and CD players. Listening to music has become a personal thing rather than a shared group activity. Video is still something you “go to” rather than something you “take with”
  • Unlike listening to music or speech, video demands much more of your attention. It’s hard (or at least dangerous) to watch video while doing other things. There are many more gaps in a typical day that might benefit from being filled with portable audio, than are free for video but don’t already have a TV or computer.
  • As the article linked below points out, there is still a shortage of content. Video copyright owners are typically wary of offering video for download, and the “buy a single track” approach that has paid so well for iTunes seems hard to fit to video.
  • Video formats are a complete mess. There are many incompatible standards for file formats, video codecs, audio codecs, compression settings and metadata. Unlike MP3 audio there is no single obvious format for sharing video. Until this is solved, distribution of video will remain a cryptic, geeky pursuit.

There are changes happening, though. probably the most popular portable video platform at the moment is the mobile phone. The communication capability provides a socially acceptable reason to carry the device, and typical phone videos are short enough to fit in gaps between activities. Muscling in to the same space are other multi-function devices such as the Play Station Portable which offers video as a respite from gaming.

My guess, though, is that the breakthough device will offer all of the above – communications, games and video, but (crucially) it will also record, functioning as a reasonable digital camera and TV-resolution camcorder..

The sword to break the gordian knot of incompatible standards will very likely be the explosive popularity of a portable recording device and whatever format it favours. Unfortunately the current Play Station Portable does not include a camera, so it is doomed to remain a “destination” format rather than a force for change. If a new crop of phones include good quality video and easy transfer/sharing of it, or a new portable games machine includes a camera and some basic editing software, then issues of content availability and formats may well become irrelevant.

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