Portable Digital Video: Is It Ready For Its Close-Up?

16 Aug 2004|Added Value

There has been a lot of debate and speculation in the last year about a rumored “video-iPod”, namely a new version of Apple’s portable MP3 player that would do for video what iPod has done for digital music.

To some people’s dismay, the most recent version of iPod (the so called “4th generation” released this summer) turned out to NOT incorporate video, or even a color screen.

Meanwhile, other companies, such as RCA, Archos, and GoVideo, have already launched portable video players (PVPs). In June, Cnet.com proclaimed the Archos AV420 “by far the best PVP we’ve seen,” praising its VCR-like controls, small size, and high quality screen, though admitting it’s still fairly expensive.

While many are still debating “if” or “when” Apple will release its own PVP, I think it’s worthwhile to take a step back and look at the bigger picture (no pun intended).

Just because one CAN make a “video iPod,” does that mean one SHOULD? Or to put it another way, will consumer demand for such a device ever be anything like what we’ve seen for the original iPod?

My guess is “no.” Here’s why.

First, unlike music, video is not an inherently portable medium. Yes we can rent a DVD and take it to our friend’s house, or bring our favorite flicks to a beach house etc. But we watch it in one place at a time. Music, however, has a history of being more portable. Even before the Sony Walkman, radio enabled us to listen to tunes pretty much anywhere.

Moreover, watching video is often a social interaction, usually with friends or family. Even when viewing alone, we tend to be in relaxation mode, lying on the couch or lounging in bed. It’s both more passive and involving at the same time; we sit back and get engrossed in what we’re watching.

Yet, we can listen to music while doing pretty much anything else (running, working, driving etc.); and the all too common fight over which radio station to listen to in the car can help explain the popularity of “mix tapes,” which in the digital world translates into actively managing “playlists” on an MP3 player. How many of us are anywhere near that organized or actively involved in managing our video collections?

I think history, once again, can teach us a lesson. Portable video is not new. Sony and others have been making “video walkmen” for over 15 years if not more. Slim, portable DVD players have been available for several years now. But these devices seem to appeal to a very finite market (namely business travelers who take long flights with a yen for the latest gadget). But how many of your friends have ever owned or used one of these on a regular basis? Now, how many have an iPod or similar MP3 player?

Just because the video is now digital, doesn’t mean it’s going to naturally be more portable.

Then again, I could be totally wrong. What do you think?

P.S. I do think a color-screen iPod that enables you to store and share digital photos will be the next wave. Sharing and displaying photos–digital or paper–are already behaviors engrained in our society; an iPod version will just give us another tool to do it.

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