Sunday, November 13, 2005

"There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home."

So said Ken Olsen, CEO of Digital Equipment Corp., in 1977, in one of the most famous boners in American corporate history. Olsen's DEC pioneered the minicomputer; that is to say, the computer that was the size of a refrigerator instead of the size of your garage. Which made it even worse that Ken stumbled so badly in misjudging the American appetite for "personal computers."

For years after that awful statement, Ken furiously backpedaled for any reporter who'd listen, claiming he was misquoted, he was taken out of context, etc., etc. The fact is, I worked at DEC in the mid-80's as the company scrambled to move into the PC business. Too late.

I was reminded of all this as I read all the column inches devoted to the new iPod's video capabilities. From the
Denver Post:

Under ABC's new deal with Apple, for $1.99 you can squint at a palm-sized rerun of Lost while waiting for an oil change."

Or this curmudgeonly take from
The Hollywood Reporter

"Don't get me wrong. iPods are cool. I mean, I don't have one, but I hear they're terrific. Every song you've ever heard can now be with you at all times and be called upon at will. It's the ultimate in instant and complete audio gratification. You can tell by the zombie-like expression it tends to induce on its users. "And now here comes the iPod with a newfangled visual component. Not that we haven't already had Watchman-style TVs around for decades already. But with the new gadget, you'll be able to download last night's edition of Desperate Housewives or Lost for $1.99 off of Apple iTunes, because we all know how much we've been clamoring for video on demand on a 2.5-inch screen. "We can't be away from our music for even a second, and now we can't be separated from our TV sets. It isn't enough that people are yakking incessantly on their cell phones while simultaneously trying to go about their daily lives; they're also taking in snippets from CNN and ESPN and Comedy Central and the latest cool music video on a wireless screen that's smaller than a Post-it note."

Believe it or not, that's from a column called The Pulse. If you're using the word "newfangled" in your column, you probably shouldn't call it The Pulse.

Tom Shales, in Television Week, wasn't afraid to take it one step beyond. He's pissed off, for reasons that defy logic -- but then doesn't Tom always defy logic? -- that the iPod
does more than one thing. He sees the addition of video to a music player as part of a larger and troubling trend:

"When machines aren't multitasking, they're being repurposed. Thus is a telephone repurposed to have multi tasks-not just the obvious, but also the peripheral, if not downright incongruous. Why, really, would you want your phone to take a picture?"

At least it was 1977 when Ken Olsen misspoke. Tom is talking like it's 1977 where he is.

Look, as a lot of journalists have noted, a 2.5 inch screen less than a foot from your face is
frickin' huge! A more enlightened journalist from the Reporter, Martin Grove, put it well:

"As for the tiny screens, they're not the problem some people think they are. While it's true that a 2.5-inch iPod screen and an even smaller mobile phone screen won't deliver the viewing experience that a 52-inch LCD display will in your home theater, there's no comparing the viewing circumstances. The iPod and the mobile phone aren't meant to replace larger in-home screens. Their value derives from offering entertainment and news video content to people in places or situations where they would otherwise not have access to such material but would like to be able to see it. Among the places where being able to watch content on a small screen would be a welcome diversion are while waiting to be seen in a doctor's overbooked office; while waiting for friends to turn up at a restaurant; while waiting for a train or plane, especially one that's late; while waiting for your wife to buy a dress; while waiting for ... well, I'm sure you get the idea."

Beyond that, let's not forget that there does exist life beyond our shores. In England, for instance, where Sony started selling movies on Memory Sticks for viewing on cell phones, and couldn't keep them on the shelves.

But the one thing I've been surprised most journalists haven't mentioned is that the iPod is only the last stop...

Along the way, that episode of
Lost goes through your computer.

Your computer with its big beautiful screen.

I'll bet a lot of Americans don't realize they don't
have to own an iPod in order to buy those $1.99 TV shows. All they need is iTunes.

I don't know about you, but I think that's a killer app. Being able to grab four or five episodes of
Lost before a long flight and watch them on my 15 or 17 inch screen? That's pretty amazing, don't you think?

And it's not about gratification, it's about a generation that doesn't understand the concept of consuming media at a particular time and place, as a communal experience. It's a TiVo and Torrent generation, and if they forget to record an episode of their favorite show, they have no idea why anyone would think it's odd that they want to download it and take it with them the next day. And frankly, neither do I. So I think it's great that we're coming up with a legal way to do it, 'cause they're going to do it anyway. On a 2.5 inch screen or whatever is handy.

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