And the Winner is...

the Consumer!

A few months back, an interesting thread made its way to my e-mail. It pitted divergent opinions on the significance of the video iPod launch and all of the accompanying media coverage and water cooler buzz.

On one side, firmly convinced their time had finally come, were the Web-centric people touting the convenience and flexibility associated with individuals choosing not only their favorite content, but also the time, location and technical apparatus on which they would consume it.

On the other side, and just as firmly convinced of the impenetrable nature of their arguments, stood the broadcasting professionals, incredulous at the thought that anybody would watch a show like "Desperate Housewives," lovingly mastered in high definition and 5.1 surround sound, on a tiny 2.5-inch screen and through barely stereo ear buds.

The discussion changed somewhat when Apple announced that more than 1 million videos had been downloaded by the end of the first month and 2 million more in the following 30 days. It wasn't just novelty after all. A new and serious trend was underway.

We shouldn't be surprised. This trend, delineated at an earlier stage in the music industry, was now ready to tackle the higher technical requirements of video distribution. This phenomena is here to stay and will only grow larger as the amount and quality of content available via download continues to increase and the price/performance ratio of the players and the networks that feed them continues to skyrocket.

We shouldn't go overboard either. One would have thought that by now, most everybody would understand that these different distribution channels are not mutually exclusive and do ultimately become complementary.

Similar phenomena have occurred throughout history and have always shaped the way a particular culture consumes the fruits of its commercial activity, but rarely if ever have they resulted in the complete eradication of a particular distribution methodology.

I vividly recall, growing up in Portugal in the early '60s, having to go to the market with my mother every single day in order to get the daily allotment of groceries needed to feed the family. Our choices were limited by whatever made it to that market, our ability to get there on time to get the goods (milk was generally gone by 6:30 a.m.), and our inability to store perishable goods at home without a refrigerator. On the positive side, the food was all organic (before anybody thought that it actually mattered), and always fresh.

Come to think about it, it was a very similar situation to broadcast TV in the United States in the early 1970s. If you were lucky, the market had four vendors (NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS), the shows aired at a particular time, and you could not store any of it for later viewing.

Contrast that with modern living. The majority of the population buys food once or twice a week from a plethora of vendors and distribution methodologies. We have convenience, grocery and gourmet stores, shopping clubs, mail-order steaks and myriad other possibilities from all over the world. Many are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and with our houses equipped with large refrigerators, basement iceboxes and pantries the size of Rhode Island, we can happily walk out of Sam's Club with 10 pound bags of hamburger patties, gallon jars of mayo and 96-roll family packs of double-ply toilet paper. On the negative side, we have all learned that BHT (whatever that is) is added to our foods to preserve freshness and increase shelf life.


Such is the case with today's television consumption. You can pick programming from hundreds of channels with content originating from all over the world, via cable, satellite, fiber and even (lo and behold) over the air! You can watch it whenever, wherever and on whatever you want, and to top it all, each and everyone of us can, for less than $100, buy more storage for this content than existed in the entire computerized world in the mid-'70s.

Yet, despite all of this, just like we all still relish the opportunity to go to a farmer's market to get some freshly picked corn, down to the waterfront to feast on some recently netted Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, or to a local orchard to pick our own strawberries, so will we continue to gather with family and friends to watch the bigger sports events, the latest Ken Burns masterpiece and even the somewhat less edifying yet equally compelling reality programming on bigger and brighter TV screens while enveloped in ever clearer and more realistic sound subsystems.

So when it comes down to laying bets on who will emerge the winner in this apparent confrontation, I would suggest that you settle down for a long dragged out fight with no victory forthcoming in the near future except for the consumer. Their options will only continue to increase.

In the end, interactivity will rule and when the time is right technologically, a new disruptive player will emerge, leveraging the best of both methodologies. It is called "virtual reality" and it is closer at hand than you think.

I will tackle it in my next column. Count on IT!