Portable Media Roadmap

Written for Spider Magazine’s upcoming Annual issue, the following is a picture of things to come (and many are already live) in the Portable Media Device market.

Peering Into the Future

You are on a seven-hour flight from London to Dubai comfortably seated and watching a music video on your Portable Media Device (PMD; iPod is a PMD) but find yourself itching for a game of poker and decide to navigate to the entertainment options in your PMD. A wireless search initiated by tapping through the series of touch-screen menus reveals other players who are also looking for a poker game. After waiting for 5-10 minutes 4 more people come looking for a game and so it gets underway; a few others join in during the play. Hours later you land in Dubai and head to the baggage lounge where you turn on your PMD once again and while in active-search an orange light blinks notifying you there are video broadcasts within range. You lookup the list and find a local newscast and download it for later retrieval. At the same time you also notice some downloadable city guides that you save to your gadget.

These scenarios though modest in appearance are much more than that. Understanding their salient characteristics will help appreciate why these are lifestyle infusions and not just a passing fad.

Apple iPods became the first portable media devices to get mass acceptance with nearly 75 million in circulation today. Unlike PDAs which are targeted toward professional tasks, or laptops which are inconvenient to lug around, or even cell phones that are still trying to converge with these entertainment devices, iPod type media and entertainment devices are sought by everyone wanting to add some color to their lifestyles. However, we are still in the relatively early stages of this fad as we were with mobile phones a decade ago when they were still clunky and expensive, offering little functionality other than dialing from an address book.

Though we tend to be consumed by technology, at the same time we use this technology primarily for communication–mobile phones are the most commonly owned technical devices; email is the number activity on the web (search is number two in case you are curios). In the airplane scenario, connecting with other passengers is facilitated by a network architecture commonly dubbed P2P or peer-to-peer where each device is a peer and is able to connect with and interact with other peers. A person in the first row of the plane will likely be out of the wireless range of the person stuck in the last row. However, the two can be linked through intermediary peers–that’s P2P at work. It’s also the reason why notorious music sharing networks like KaZaA are able to scale out so rapidly across millions of users within a network. Theoretically a P2P network of PMD gadgets can span an entire metropolitan city but the more realistic scenario is that PMDs will be used to share videos, songs and pictures between students and friends within a more specific social setting. Microsoft’s Zune player is poised to enable just such a scenario with its WiFi capabilities and it is safe to assume others–most notably iPod–are already on the same roadmap.

The line between cell phones, PDAs and PMDs seems to be blurring and their features might converge over the longer term as consumer familiarity and comfort level with these devices increases, and technological advances allow more features to fit in smaller spaces. However, the near term focus will be to provide a simplistic and easily digestible interface for entertainment and media consumption. Simplicity is what drives mass consumption. VCRs for example, are simple; anyone can play a movie or forward to a certain scene. Few mothers–or anyone in the non-technical demographic–find it simplistic to program a VCR leading this feature to have much lower consumption even though the utility it offers is wonderful; you can watch what you want, when you want. In fact TiVo’s success has relied on simplifying this considerably.
Current media devices support audio, video and picture formats along with gaming applications in some newer ones. It is likely that these devices will start supporting document formats and test the waters with slightly more complex applications for personal management such as calendaring but not much more. This is due to the simplicity principle and mass-market targeting. Products will however attempt to differentiate on features by adding digital cameras, FM radios and voice recorders to the mix but any additions beyond that won’t find a mass market and will probably cross over into the realm of PDAs.

The input controls on PMDs are currently limited to a patented scroll wheel on the iPods and a set of standard buttons to play, pause and navigate forward and backward across songs and folders. To get maximum utility from the limited screen real estate, PMDs are aiming to display controls on the screen itself which the user can activate by tapping on the screen. Consequently onscreen controls will also be more dynamic since they are not limited to a particular shape or size. The devices will also add other minor conveniences such as orientation-awareness so when held sideways, videos can automatically switch to widescreen format.

As being already witnessed in some niche scenarios, PMDs are able to interface with other digital mediums allowing users to download pictures directly from digital cameras, plug their pictures and videos into a television or control a home’s music system directly from the device. Gradually, as PMDs become ubiquitous these scenarios will become commonplace across the board resulting in a frenzy of interaction, sharing and integration.