Analyst Opinion - In a high-speed networked world, the iPod looks like the Sneakernet did when we got the Ethernet : You always have to physically carry your music around with you, which is easy but also annoying : If you don’t have your iPod with you or if you cannot connect your iPod to the stereo in your car, the iPod and the music on it have no value. It is time to get the iPod up on networks.
3G and Wi-Fi are relatively common today and 4G and WiMax will be rolling out over the next few years, opening a new chapter in the network world : The days of being disconnected are nearly over and the reason for storing media on any device will be increasingly obsolete, just as the Sneakernet is now. One of the new terms you will be hearing this year more often is “visual networking”. This technology promises to change the way you store and access media, while making your current iPod and iPhone largely obsolete, along with every other pre-3G or non-networked entertainment focused device.
At the core of visual networking is a reliable high speed wired or wireless network that distributes your media files to wherever you need them. Currently we have this capability in offerings like Slacker, which provides an excellent early view of things to come with regard to music. But these services lack a future capability necessary for video output.
Eventually tied to a subscription service of some type, the companies developing such technology include Cisco, Microsoft, Time Warner, Sony, and even Apple is reported to be furiously working on this in the hope it can have a solution before the market makes its move. And, whatever else this is, there is clearly a race to compete with what will likely be a disruptive set of services that could dramatically change the landscape that Apple now dominates : The Time Warner strategy to have a $5 a month flat rate all-you-can-eat service delivered via cable alone is a potential game changer.
The experience that is promised is one where you’ll have access to a broad set of multimedia content on a variety of devices all the time. These products will range from set top boxes (including AppleTV), to personal computers, portable media players, automobiles and special kiosks, which might be embedded in Microsoft Surface-like products in areas where people congregate.
While the technology side of this is interesting and the media access is potentially impressive, there are several areas that will need a lot of brainwork. First, the access to massive libraries comes with the problem of being able to easily find what you want and discover new things to listen to and watch without spending hours learning the interface or mining archives. This speaks to the user interface and while Apple may be the most at risk, they also have the strongest skill set in this one critical area. If they can apply that skill set to this problem, they could emerge even stronger (based on the second generation 3G iPhone).
The second area, and nearly of equal importance, is the network. While not as important with audio, the need to provide high-enough networking speeds consistently is critical and Cisco’s role to become a likely segment leader could make or break this part of the effort : It’s not just the final networking mile that is important – it’s all that goes between the device and the media source.
Finally, and particularly for video, the ability to either transcode media on the fly or have access to a library of already transcoded material that is optimized for a particular device will, assuming everything else is done correctly, allows this new visual networking environment to bring this future world of always connected multi-media devices to life.
Will Apple emerge victorious ?
From today’s view, it is Apple’s market to lose but disruptive change always puts the dominant vendor at risk and this technology confronts Apple with a much larger number of players than ever before. New players have taht they don’t have to worry about prematurely obsolescing existing lines and can, as Slacker has already done, take bigger risks. On the other hand, no one, with the possible exception of HP, is marketing at Apple’s level right now and Apple is almost unmatched with regard to the user experience. That is a lot of ground for any competitor to cover and few have been able to step up to the challenge.
I think we will have to see what Apple does with its generation of visually networked products and whether anyone is willing or able, to provide a better user experience. With Dell rumored to be re-entering with a ground-up product, this will certainly get interesting. Regardless, over the next few months we will be seeing an unprecedented number of solutions in this visual networking space and we may soon look back at the existing line of iPod/iPhone and other personal products, like we do at floppy disks and Sneakernet - as critical, though obsolete, pieces of history.
Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.