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  • CES Takeaway #4: Welcome to the Golden Age of Video Innovation and Consumer Confusion

    (Note: Each day this week I've been writing about one key takeaway from last week's CES 2011. Today is the final installment. For those who want to learn more about key CES highlights, next Wednesday, January 19th, I'll participate in a complimentary webinar, "Demystifying CES 2011" with The Diffusion Group and ActiveVideo Networks.)

    It's hard not to step back from CES 2011 and be genuinely impressed with the incredible level of technical ingenuity being brought to bear on the video industry. In a very real sense, we are on the front end of a "golden age" of video innovation, which is already producing tangible, positive changes in how we engage with video content of all types. That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that all of this innovation is also creating a golden age of consumer confusion and frustration, in which formerly mundane decisions can entail a mind-numbing level of complexity.

    First the good news. This year's CES showcased how networking (technical, not social) - the same underlying characteristic that has driven the Internet - is now coming to video. Networking is enormously important because it dissolves the traditional constraints of content access, devices/containers and location. For example, whereas 50 years ago those with expensive encyclopedias or easy access to local libraries (the containers) had a decisive information edge, today all the world's information is available to anyone with an Internet connection. The idea of a fixed set of books, in a fixed location, accessible only to a privileged few, now seems quaint.

    Similarly, networking is now doing the same for video. By putting video in the cloud and accessible on different Internet-enabled "connected" devices, all the world's video (subject to rights issues of course!) is fast becoming available, on-demand. That's a sea-change from the scheduled, "must-see TV" world of programming locked to a set-top box, with forced advertising interruptions, that was the norm not so long ago. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of networked video is that high-quality video can be seamlessly delivered, wired or wirelessly. For anyone who has fast-forwarded or rewound a movie being streamed to an iPad, its near instantaneous playback ability is an amazing reminder of how far networking has evolved.

    The innovation in networks and devices is already bringing more entertainment pleasure to consumers; for many it is fun, cool, and liberating. And it's going to get a lot better still. CES 2011 also showed how connected devices and networking is becoming part of their service delivery model. For many viewers that will mean even more on-demand benefits and an inevitable streamlining of today's inefficient video subscription/packaging approach.

    From a different perspective, the technical and product innovation in video is driving a pocket of growth in still-cautious consumer spending, which is a positive for the economy. While the pursuit of video's shiny new objects can be seen as another example of consumerism run amok, it also exemplifies the how technology's vibrancy is key to the 21st century economy.

    The downside here is that amid all the great benefits, heightened levels of consumer confusion and frustration will be closely correlated with video product innovation. The consumer electronics industry's relentless pursuit of the next sexy, must-have feature leaves many consumers wondering what it all means, what they really need, and when they should take the plunge and buy. For example, with TVs, think of all these: HDTV, LED TV, 3D TV, Connected TV, Smart TV. It's an axiom when buying a computer that 6 months later there will also be something better and cheaper. Now it's this way with video electronics too.

    For example, one friend of mine built expensive bookshelves not that long ago, in part to house a state of the art large-screen TV. But it was a 4:3 tube model. Upgrading to a wide-screen would now require costly remodeling. Oops. Or how about this: just this week, Verizon announced it was carrying the iPhone. Great. But it's a 3G iPhone. How many buyers locking in for 2-year contracts realize that soon enough a 4G iPhone will be available, which will deliver far better video streaming over Verizon's 4G network? Likely not many. This sort of thing can only cause initial excitement to morph into buyer's remorse.

    Meanwhile, getting all this new gear to work together, in order to enjoy the full range of intended benefits, is another powder keg of frustration. Our society's technical ignorance was on display not that long ago when we were awash in a sea of blinking clocks on VCRs; now you practically need a CS degree just to turn on all the equipment required to watch what you want. And it's not a given that once on, everything will work together. I just learned this lesson myself. I took a bunch of videos with my Flip camera and transferred them to my Mac. Then I wanted to move them to my iPad, but they never synched. A trip to the Apple store revealed that the iPad doesn't play Flip's video format. Solution: go search for some software that will do the necessary conversion and learn how to use it. Come on!

    But I should consider myself lucky there was an Apple store nearby, with a live, knowledgeable, English-speaking person to deal with. How many of us have had the pleasure of speaking to an off-shore customer service rep who either has no idea what we're talking about, can't be understood, and/or says it's not his/her responsibility because equipment by other manufacturers is involved? Increasingly, whom the consumer can turn to for help and solutions is up for grabs. It's each person for himself/herself in the Darwinian age of video innovation.

    So there you have it. A golden age of video innovation. And a golden age of consumer confusion and frustration. This year's CES demonstrated that we're entering both. Welcome to the future.

    What do you think? Post a comment now (no sign-in required).

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