Computing's video dreams

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos pours cold water on some of the "cool" ideas that so enamor technologists these days.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
It was a can't-miss idea. Combine video with the number-crunching ability of microprocessors and the storage capabilities of hard drives.

Unfortunately, Intel was about 20 years ahead of the times when it began to promote the ProShare videoconferencing system. And, like the Intel digital watch before it, the product was discontinued after a hearty fight.

Now we're in the midst of another video revolution. Apple Computer, Sony and others are promoting video-on-the-go systems--most notably now, an iPod that plays video--while Samsung, among others, hopes to turn cell phones into TVs.

Then others, such as Sling Media, are promoting systems that let consumers access their own home movies or shows stored on their TVs from any location.

Most of these ideas, however, will flounder. Here's why:

1. Navigation problems
The average person can walk down the street and listen to music on an MP3 player at the same time. Try doing that while watching an old episode of "Barnaby Jones." Invariably, you'll run into mailboxes and other pedestrians.

These devices might work in large urban centers like Seoul, South Korea, where everyone rides the train, but few places match that description in North America. And even if they did, we still have...

2. The screen issue
I'll never forget the first time someone showed me a smart phone. "You can view photos and look up stock quotes," the company representative said. "And check this out, you can surf the Net too, if you're insane." Simply put, the screens are too small. The picture is actually quite clear on Sony's Type U, but after a while it is sort of like watching an ant farm.

3. The old 3 minutes 50
Except for a brief concept-album phase in the late '60s and early '70s, most songs are pretty short. You can listen to seven or eight of them on the way to work. Not so with TV shows. Sitcoms go for a half hour, which limits their value. Put another way, in the same time it takes to watch "$40 a Day with Rachel Ray" you can listen to "Waterloo" 10 and a half times, or "Roundabout" three times with enough room to squeeze in the theme song from "Dirty Dancing."

4. The ubiquitous screen
This is probably one of the biggest hurdles facing these projects. TV is pretty easy to find these days, which attenuates many of the reasons to buy a new device. The Slingbox from Sling Media, for instance, is a home device that will sling pictures or video from a home TV to a remote location. Executives at the company will often pose the question, "What if you're in a hotel and you want to watch the TV shows you watch at home?"

Easy, you just turn on the TV in the room--it's next to those glasses of water with the protective doily.

5. Encore
How many times do you really want to watch "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"? After a few viewings, the novelty sort of peters out. And that movie was good. Imagine watching "Ernest Saves Christmas," "Buffalo '66," or "The Mummy Returns" twice. Perhaps more than any other art form, film usually does not stand up to repeat viewing.

It's no coincidence that one of the more promising video start-ups is Peerflix which lets you dump old DVDs on someone else.

Contrast that with music. Thirty years later you can probably still sing along to "Love Train." Hence, devices that let you carry music around are big business. Games, meanwhile, are compulsive, explaining why Nintendo Game Boys sell well.

6. The lack of an easy problem to solve
MP3 players existed for years before the iPod emerged and jump-started sales. There was a good reason Apple's device took off. Most players had only 128MB or less of flash memory. Putting a hard drive in cured that.

7. They already exist If you really need to watch old episodes of "Antiques Roadshow" on the go, you can get a cheap portable video device. It's called a handheld DVD player.