TV: Video’s Killer App…Forever

There’s been a lot buzz the past couple days about a potential upcoming announcement by Google about expanding its video services and offerings…

I’m going to take what may be a controversial stance here, but I don’t believe the PC-based video will ever serve more than a niche market in the overall commercial video ecosystem. Sure, everything is moving to the PC these days — messaging, voice, music, etc — but i don’t believe that the future of commercial video is the desktop. Let me explain my reasoning…

There are three (major) parts to commercial video today. First, there’s the content production. This is currently ruled by a number of very large studios with deep pockets and strong contractual relationships. Then there’s the distribution channels. There are currently a couple large competing technologies, with over-the-air, cable, and satellite being the most common. Lastly, there’s the viewing device, which is currently the television set, with a lot of buzz around migration to the PC and portable devices.

There is little doubt in my mind that the first two things (content production and distribution channel) will undergo major disruptive range in the coming years. With the lower costs of producing commercial-quality video and the reduced friction of distribution over the web, large studios will soon see competition from smaller, niche production companies and even personal content creators (video blogs, etc). Additionally, analog distribution will soon disappear, with IP technology taking over as the delivery mechanism of choice. With production moving to smaller and distribution moving to IP, it seems like PC-based and portable-device-based video is the natural progression, but I don’t think so.

My reasoning is simple… Watching television (or any commercial quality video such as movies, etc) is a social activity, and will remain so. People don’t generally watch TV alone, they don’t go to the movies alone, and you rarely hear about Super Bowl parties with only a single person in attendance. Conversely, using a PC or a portable device is an experience undertaken in groups of one, no more, no less. And will remain so.

I learned this lesson all-too-well back in the late nineties when I was designing the first generation of integrated web/television set-top devices, like WebTV. The conglomeration at first seemed natural…how could anyone not want to surf the web on their TV set, or enhance their viewing experience with a web-based interface?

But, what we quickly realized is that people didn’t want to mix their web experience with their television viewing experience. Using a PC is a solitary activity; you don’t want groups of people to share in your email, blog reading, etc. Using a PC is also a very non-passive activity; you are constantly exercising your fingers and your mind, and are in an “active” state. Watching TV is just the opposite. The TV viewing experience is a social activity; the more people the better. Additionally, watching TV is a passive activity, one where the user…I mean viewer…purposely chooses not to engage in activity.

And I believe the social barriers that currently differentiate the PC and device experience from the television viewing experiece are strong enough that they won’t be overcome strictly by a set of new production and delivery technologies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s quite likely that in a couple years, many people will be getting plenty of video content from companies like Google, and it will be delivered over wi-fi or over the same lines as your Internet data, but the one thing that will remain constant is that you’ll continue to watch most of it on your TV set.