CTAM Preview: Near-Term Technologies

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On Independence Day, we invited a few friends over for a cookout. Just into the second mojito, a noticeable commotion permeated the scene.

The best way to describe it is “cell phone athletics.” (They called it “mobile personal media.”)

It seemed to be all about snapping a cell phone photo of someone, then picking the perfect cell phone song for that someone. When he or she calls, the picture appears and the song plays. (One guy even recorded short video clips, on his phone, which is why everyone will remain nameless.)

Like so many times, I wondered if I was observing a fad, or if the multimedia trimmings to the common cell phone would prosper.

CRADLE TANGLE?

(In either event, it looks suspiciously like yet another charger cradle for yet another device, to later join the boxful of cradles without devices, all in a big rainy-day tangle in the basement.)

The cookout consensus, among the unequipped of us, was that cell phones seem to shrink in size, and multiply in features, every six months.

Other technologies seem to flourish more slowly. Fireworks come to mind.

The shapes that glimmered onto the night sky later that evening — hearts, stars, even a Saturn-looking thing — combined with the kaleidoscope of color, took me by surprise. Maybe it was a mind trick, but it sure seemed like fireworks have matured beautifully over the past 20 years.

From cell phones to fireworks, a fluctuating pace for technological change is a given. What's hard is picking which technologies to follow, amid the wide range of motion — usually as a side dish to your regular job, which is probably busy enough.

Such is often the case for the industry's marketing forces, who meet in Boston next week for the annual Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing Summit. Part of their work is to shape how consumers discover and choose new cable services, in an increasingly competitive environment.

That made it seem fitting to devote this week's column to the near-term technologies aimed at cable customers.

WHAT CABLE GETS

These days, looking ahead necessitates the lumping of new technologies into two types: Those that wind up in your systems, and those that you put there.

So far, the set-top/video connection remains immune to anything other than what you put there.

It's that cable modem/broadband Internet duct that's becoming the load-bearing vessel for “outside” stuff that winds up in cable systems.

Near-term, that means more merchandise that looks, to consumers, like phone service.

It comes from companies like AT&T Corp. and Vonage Holdings Inc., among many others. They use a method of communicating known as “SIP,” for “session initiation protocol,” which is largely undetectable by the cable modems underneath.

More such competitive services are coming.

And there's another biggie in the near-term sites: Home media centers.

They're big because of what's behind them, which is at least two big industries: Consumer electronics and personal computing.

Because it's new turf, with lots of sparkle, the home media center is the epicenter of an unrestrained bit of nomenclature sparring.

The attempts at a name for the technology — residential gateways, media centers, media center PCs — elbow into the attempts at a name for what they provide — networked home, digital home, multimedia home.

Their purpose, in most cases, is to be the central repository and traffic cop linking up all of the digital stuff in a person's house. That means photos, videos, DVDs, music, and digital video recordings of TV — available to multiple devices, in multiple rooms. Everything gets connected.

WHAT CABLE'S DOING

In both cases — communications services that ride through cable modems, and home media centers — there's considerable activity on the home turf. That means competing products that can be put into circulation, to vie with the stuff that winds up there.

At least one ranking MSO is quietly testing SIP-based services, for example, while monitoring how AT&T, Vonage, and the others do with theirs.

On the media center front, the traditional set-top suppliers are designing many, if not all, of the features that come with CE- and PC-styled home media centers (think multi-room DVR and HD- VOD here.)

Simultaneously, the technologists working on home networks, wired and wireless, are tackling the issue from the IP (Internet protocol) side of the network.

On all fronts, the main barrier to media centers is known as “digital rights management,” or “DRM.” It's always within two feet of any conversation about home media centers, sticking up at a pointy angle, demanding resolution.

The problem is how to make a device that copyright holders will deem a “trusted domain,” to hold and share content with other “trusted” devices.

CONSUMER BEHAVIOR

The friends who showed up for the cookout, by example, are gadgetry buffs. It's fun for them. It's their job, in a way.

Most of us probably know people who can barely turn their cell phones on, let alone retrieve messages.

Still, this blitz of handheld things to make our digital stuff more portable seems unavoidable. Digital PDAs, cameras, phones, DVD players, MP3 players, and portable DVRs (and their charging apparatus) are way more amongst us than they used to be, even five years ago.

If it works better with broadband, it will show up in cable systems. Ready?

Stumped by gibberish? Visit www.translation-please.com.

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