July 20, 2004 4:00 AM PDT

Will consumers tune in to portable video?

Manufacturers are set to release portable digital media players, but there?s little expectation they will transform the market overnight in the way that MP3 players such as the iPod changed the music industry.

Portable video players will let consumers download, store and view television shows, movies, music, photos and other digital content on the players' big hard drives and small color screens.


What's new:
Ready or not, here they come: digital media players that provide portable video as well as audio.

Bottom line:
Many say the market isn't ready because there?s little content. But until the devices are on the market, manufacturers counter, there will be little reason to create content.

More stories on video and portable digital players

Manufacturers Samsung, Creative Labs and Archos will promote the portability and ease of use, allowing consumers to record a late-night TV show, for example, and watch it on the subway during the morning commute. The device makers see the strong sales of Apple Computer's iPod as an indication of mobile video's potential.

But there are significant potholes on the road to iPod-level success, which may be why two key arbiters of hip portable devices--Apple Computer and Sony Electronics--aren't rushing their own video devices to store shelves.

"Initially, this is an early-adopter product, but down the road, we're hoping, we've set ourselves up for a hit," said James Bernard, product manager of Microsoft's Portable Media Center, the company's upcoming software for video devices. "It's the early adopters that people turn to for (buying) advice.?

In the short term, few services have been created to deliver content, and consumers will have to get used to the idea of carrying video around to watch while waiting in airports or commuting on trains and buses. By contrast, millions of consumers were already accustomed to using music devices such as the Walkman or a portable CD player prior to the emergence of MP3.

"The total demand from people who need to take their video with them is smaller than those who have time in their day to listen to music, which is a more passive activity," said Ross Rubin, an analyst with NPD Techworld. "It's tough to watch video while you're jogging."

Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs said pretty much the same thing in late April when asked whether video was on the near horizon for the iPod, which recorded sales of 860,000 units in the last quarter alone.

"You can't drive a car when you are watching a movie," he noted. "It's really hard, anyway."

He said music is often a background activity, played while doing something else. For that reason, he said, Apple is focusing on audio.

On the sidelines

Click here to Play

Sony is also sitting out the initial wave of video devices. The company recently introduced a hard-drive-based portable player, the Vaio Pocket, but it doesn't play video. Instead, the 2.2-inch color screen on the device is meant to display photos and album covers. Sony's reasons for hesitation seem to have less to do with how people will use video devices than with the current lack of content.

"I tend to think it's premature to get into this market in the United States right now, because of a lack of video services," said Mike Abary, Sony Electronics' general manager of Vaio marketing.

Sony's native Japan is another story. That gadget-happy market will soon have a video player Sony has code-named "Opera." It will download video from PCs or televisions. Sony has voiced no plans for a U.S. version.

Getting content delivery services in place won't be as easy as setting up a Web site. Among the most significant obstacles are copyright and piracy. The technology and entertainment industries have yet to develop a copy protection standard to ensure that copyrighted material isn't pirated on a massive scale, though they took a first step last week.

On July 14, several technology companies and movie studios--including IBM, Intel, Warner Bros., Disney, Microsoft, Sony, Panasonic and Toshiba--announced an alliance that will create a new copy protection standard for DVDs that would provide for some sharing among devices, but the fruits of those labors are probably years away.

While there won't be a wide range of easily deliverable content soon, IDC research analyst Josh Martin notes that some consumers have already collected enough visual content to find the devices useful. Apart from their own digital photos and home video, digital video recorders let many consumers grab their own video content from broadcast television.

"For some early adopters, it's already worth buying these devices, because they have enough digital content from such products as their DVRs," Martin said.

The squint factor
Another problem is making it work for users on the move--and on a screen the size of a credit card.

"You can't drive a car when you are watching a movie. It's really hard, anyway."
--Apple CEO Steve Jobs on why
iPods won't have video soon

"There are two obvious sources of video for these devices--TV shows and movies," said Ross Rubin, an analyst with NPD Techworld. "But I don't see consumers having long sessions with these devices."

So service providers will have to be creative to offer video content in a way that is appetizing to potential users.

Sports highlights could be among the first offerings. Earlier this month, Microsoft said content from the Major League Baseball site will be downloadable to devices using Portable Media Center software. Full and condensed games will be available, plus other clips, such as extended highlights and bloopers.

Music videos are another natural fit, Rubin said, considering that the devices can also play standard music files.

Ready to play
Despite the question marks, the players are coming. This month, online retailer Amazon.com began taking orders for devices from Creative Labs and Samsung, which will use Microsoft's Portable Media Center software. Due this summer, the devices will sell for $500, with 20GB hard drives and screens of about 3.5 inches. iRiver, Sanyo and ViewSonic will also make players that will use Portable Media Center. Archos will have a similar product available this month--its AV400 devices, which will be made compatible with Microsoft's software when it's available, according to Archos executives.

Click here to Play

Portable Media Center will transfer video from PCs running Windows XP. Using a USB 2.0 connection, a two-hour movie can be downloaded in about three minutes, according to Microsoft's Bernard. Video playback is at the TV standard of 30 frames per second.

Compatible devices will have color displays of 3.5 inches or 3.8 inches, and minimum battery life should allow three hours of video playback or 12 hours of audio. The hard drives will be 20GB or 40GB, storing up to 160 hours of video or 10,000 songs.

Manufacturers will be looking to use the popularity of audio players as a springboard to attract consumers to video, according to analysts. Video-enabled devices may cost more, and the hard drives in early video players won't be as capacious as in some audio players, but consumers will be getting video with their audio.

"Consumers will get less storage for comparably priced devices, but these devices offer protection for the future," Martin said, noting that if video becomes popular, people with these early devices will already be in the game. "The question is, how much of an advantage that is now?"

Another question: Will that advantage be enough to get consumers to embrace something they haven't accepted so far? Portable analog audio devices, such as Sony's Walkman, helped to establish a market for audio players. With video players, consumers will have to be trained nearly from scratch.

Previous generations of portable video products have never enjoyed the success of audio devices, IDC's Martin noted.

"There have been portable video devices, such as DVD players and televisions," he said. "Ultimately, they became products in niche categories."


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
This idea is so brain-dead, I can't believe it. Consumers have
long established that the golden rule in the video/movie viewing
experience is bigger is better. That's why consumers go to
movie theaters - to experience the huge, expansive, bigger-
than-life screen. That's why the holy grail of home viewing is the
biggest screen you can afford (or reasonably stuff into your
living quarters), the better. It's just not a portable-friendly
experience. What are these guys thinking? That consumers will
look at these things and say, "my, look at that stunning 3.5 inch
screen?" Tiny movie/video devices with tiny screens is
completely counterintuitive to the movie/video viewing
experience. It's just technology in search of a solution, or more
to the point, iPod envy. Sorry boys. Nothing to see here, almost
literally. Nothing beyond the geek gadget potential for sales,
and that's going to be a small, niche market at most, if
measurable at all. By the way, years ago, Sony already tried this
with the Watchman. The market for it never materialized. I
wonder why?
Posted by Terry Murphy (82 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I agree i really can't see these things taking off, you're better off
getting a laptop for long plane journeys, and any video for
mobile devices will be on cell phones and these will be short
clips like news of the day or maybe short programs specially
made for mobile content. these devices have also been hit with
the ugly stick, and you have to have them out in public view to
watch video so you have a greater chance of getting mugged. I
would like to think that consumers are intelligent enough to
spot all these flaws and stick to the iPod or rio, even if microsoft
is good at selling terribly flawed products.
Posted by Filip Remplakowski (91 comments )
Link Flag
Will consumers tune in to portable video
While I will probably not "tune-in", I regularly see young people walking around with their portable DVD players. Why not walk around and watch last nite's late show or ball game?
Posted by victor13w (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Just so you know, sales of portable DVD players have been more
than disappointing. Maybe because most people in the target
market already own a portable DVD player that can do much,
much more: a notebook with a 12 or 14" screen!
Posted by dirk128 (31 comments )
Link Flag
Important fact not mentioned in the article
Remember that next year will see the launch of the Portable
Playstation PSP which has an awesome screen and great video
playback. It also has a new disk format, plus Sony controls a lot
of content rights themselves. This unit will sell millions on the
game basis alone, and there will be a significant market for
video to these users. My prediction is that PSP will be the market
leader in portable video!
Posted by (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Market for PVPs is Currently Small
PVPs face two huge obstacles to their commercial success:
- sources of content
- practical usability

Let's look at the first obstacle. Right now there is no easy way to encode TV or movie video on a PC. Even if you can, you might be violating current law in some way.

MP3 players are popular because ripping and encoding music is fast and practically foolproof.

The same can't be said for video. If you have a DVD, you first have to find software to break the CSS encryption. I won't say any more on that, those who need it know how to do it. Then you have to wait 15 - 40 min while the software rips the DVD. If you want to watch the movie on your PC, your job's almost over.

PVPs are another matter. You now have to encode the movie to some compressed format that your PVP can handle. Given the current generation of software - even Dr. DivX - is still more of an art than a science, involving more than a little guesswork and a ton of patience. Reliable documentation and instruction is hard to find. Once you figure out how you're going to encode the files, encoding itself takes hours: don't even think about making a sandwich, you might as well set it to be done overnight and go to bed.

Worse, when you wake up, you may not even have what you were aiming for. The video may be good, but the audio may be screwed up. Congratulations: you just wasted a night. Really determined pro users can over come these circumstances easily, but the average user won't be inclined to try a second time, if he even tried the first time.

What about P2P? Well, what about it? For all the hullaballoo the MPAA is making about shared movies, the quality of the files is far from assured and it can still take a whole day to get a film.

There is, of course, another source of video on the net. It's called porn. But who's gonna watch a hardcore MFF scene in full view of everyone on the subway? Most people wouldn't dare.

But wait, your PVP might even support the format you just downloaded. That's right: you're facing another transcoding session.

The only glimmer of hope for easy access to content is CinemaOne, which I read would soon be offerring titles for PVP playback. How many persons even know about CinemaOne's existence? More persons probably know of Movielink, but they don't offer mobile video. Oh well.

The second obstacle is practical usability. As the article said, watching a video is a far more involved experience than listening to audio. Most people pretty much can't be at the top of your productivity game while watching something else. Watching video while driving sounds cool until you think that you could kill someone. You might walk into a lamp post watching your PVP on a busy street.

Right now the only thing PVPs have going for them is that they're cool. But that's about it. A good concept on paper, but difficult to execute correctly. I think I'll stick to my reliable PVP, the same one I've had since 2001: my laptop. Thank you.
Posted by LANjackal (39 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Bring it on...
My current status (married) means I won't be one of the first people out there purchasing one, but I want one.

But... I don't need a screen.

I just want to be able to plug the box into a tuner or VCR, record something, and then take it into
- another room where I have TV but no satellite receiver
- someone else's house
- work
and plug it in and watch it on a big TV.

I just want the portability and the ease of recording video, the same way I can quickly move files with my USB keychain drive.
Posted by TV James (680 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Portable video will take off when...
Like all recent video technology, portable video will really take off when there is plenty of porn to play on it!
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Game + Video + Music = Sony Playstation Portable
Back in year 2000, Sony launch the playstation 2 console which can play DVD's. PS2 and DVD benefit from each other. The PS2 accelerate the market acceptance for DVD contents. And a lot of people brought the PS2 to watch DVD movies.
So it is easy to to imagine that the PSP, to be
launch by the end of this year, would appeal to many mobile users. PSP can satisfy all the entertainment needs since the user can listen to music, watch video and of course play some quality
games on the PSP.
Posted by (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Doesn't Support H.264/AVC!!!!
These will NOT be a huge success, only a few MS lovers will buy
these overpriced, limited bricks.

MS needs to open up their proprietary software and allow for
H.264/AVC video and AAC audio playback if they want them to
be more successful than portable DVD players!

What is H.264 you ask. For one thing it is what 3G cellular and
the DVD forum have adopted for their next generation codec of
choice. It is fully scalable from 3G phone content to full
streaming HD video (1920x1080 @24).

In other words the players will have very limited content (stuff
people create on their Windows-only PC) unless MS licenses the
much superior Apple Quicktime Technology or, at very least,
integrates the open codec into their own software. Of course,
then MS won't have full control over consumers and what format
they watch and listen to media in - which is their ultimate goal.

All this, of course, will fail miserably just like their attempt to
take over digital music, Apple just did it much, much better and
Apple will no doubt do consumer portable video much, much
better (they already have started by adopting H.264!!).

So, I'll wait and adopt Apple's solution as I have already been
more than impressed and satisfied with their personal/portable
audio solution using iPod/iTunes (if you're NOT using this
technology already - you're really missing out - how
excellent it all works can't be explained well until you have tried
Posted by dirk128 (31 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You think Apple is the good guy?
Maybe Apple has adopted some standard but their other actions speak a lot louder. Ever buy a tune with your own money from ITunes and then try to play it on a non-apple mp3 player? I didn't think so. I'll save you some time and hassle.. it doesn't work. I have an music player on my Treo 650 phone. It holds thousands of songs and plays most formats... .but not whatever ITunes uses. So when my wife buys music for her Nano and I want to play it too I actually have to burn the song to a physical CD and then rip the CD to get it into MP3 format. Infuriating!!!! Oh and I suspect that Apple is behind getting Bose to make there SoundDock not work with any non-IPod device. Can't prove it though but why else would Bose not connect to a standard headphone jack like all the other devices do. Apple is not the good guy here. Not even close!
Posted by regfolder2003 (9 comments )
Link Flag
"Wait'll they get a loud of me"........
The idea is not whether or not john q. public will buy into this. The only real question here is how the intertainment industry will react. If people could share movies so much more easily, then that means more 13 year old girls being sued for having an "illegal" copy of the Barbie movie. I know that movies are being downloaded everyday already, but I'm talking about the widespread promotion of such "immoral" behavier by corparations that never get questioned by Hollywood and the insane belittlement of the downloader. This only serves to make a bad situation worse.
Posted by Prndll (382 comments )
Reply Link Flag

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