At VON last week, I attended an excellent talk by Neale Martin on IPTV and consumer habits. Persuasively, he made a point that's very much in tune with something I've been saying many times here: that whether a consumer product stands or falls is not just a matter of what it lets you do (e.g. choose from thousands of movies to watch), but also, crucially, of whether it can create a new habit, or rely on existing ones.
As an example of a mistaken approach, Neale mentioned BMW's iDrive. Amazing in its features (i.e. what it lets you do), it was hopeless in its expectation that car drivers would become accustomed to dealing with a complex navigational model in situations where instinct and reflexes are paramount. He then compared this to IPTV user interfaces, and suggested that when watching TV, emotions, moods and social context are much more important than functionality.
So far so good. I couldn't possibly agree more. But on the next point I differ: Neale then claimed that the answer to this conundrum is to design for simplicity, i.e. to make technology so simple as to render it transparent, allowing us to concentrate on what matters: the road (for cars) or the movie (for IPTV)
I agree that transparency is key, and that simplicity is one way to transparency. But something can be transparent without being 'simple'.
Consider cars. Using them is far form simple: learning to skillfully use the accelerator, clutch, break, gearshift and steering wheel--all while negotiating your way through traffic--takes a long time. But, once you learn the skill, the technology becomes transparent and you can focus on the traffic, or the fact that you are trying to get to work on time.
Driving is an example of what in earlier posts I've called a practice. Other examples include speaking and playing sports and music. Some key common features of practices are that:
- Once you learn them, you can use them in countless different situations
- In these situations you get to concentrate on what you want to do (getting to work, watching a movie), but not on the practice itself (driving, navigating an IPTV menu)
- They are usually learned by imitating others
- You can refer to them in conversation with others ("driving to work", "watching the news") without having to explain what you mean. They are social currency.
In my view, the main challenge for Internet TV in the years ahead is to invent a practice for watching on-demand video as a ten-feet experience. This won't be easy, and is unlikely to be achieved by any single product, no matter how good, because the social character of practices demands that they be shared widely, and not just by the consumers of a niche product (although this may be one way to start). By the time the practice is established, it must be possible to say something like "just go to the Goldrush service", meaning an on-demand TV service, without having to explain further, and expecting to be understood by anyone. This requires standards, new expressive forms, and an entire industry behind it.
The challenge is too daunting, and it's unlikely to be solved centrally or by committee. The answer is likely to emerge slowly, in a disruptive, bottom-up, chaotic way. If the web's history is anything to go by, a first step will be the introduction of cheap, standard hardware tethered to the TV on which anyone can develop applications, so that we can have TV's version of the web's NCSA Mosaic.
Although the web itself will probably play a key role in this process--the basic ideas of links and sites will probably translate to the TV--the new medium (call it the 'TV Web') will in some ways be fundamentally different, as it won't be text-based. Still, we don't like to learn radically new practices; and, because of this, the TV web will take what it can from those that precede it: TV and the web. That's why web-video is strategically important today: the new medium that arises after it will harness many of its features, infrastructure and content. But this also serves as a warning: the TV web will be a new medium, and not every format and business model that works on the web today will work on the TV web tomorrow.
Finally, none of this is original: The idea that new media evolve from old ones comes from David Jay Bolter. I took the idea of practices from the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott. The idea of transparency is largely a restatement of Martin Heidegger's idea of 'tools'. And I became interested in all this thanks to this book by Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores, and Hubert L. Dreyfus, from which I also took the example of driving.