Replacing Live TV

It’s amazing how quickly technologies make what was once established wisdom seem quaint. It often takes more than one technology, which is why it’s hard to foresee the path society will take—people combine things in unexpected ways.

The requirement to set aside a specific block of time to watch or listen to a broadcast—as one must do with live TV—has become an anachronism to me, like tube-based televisions. It took the rise iPlayer, PVRs, 4OD, Hulu and other technologies and services to make the idea of arranging my life around the times broadcasters select for TV shows seems ridiculous. Watching at the time of broadcast becomes pure coincidence. To put this in perspective: imagine needing to go to a gig to listen to a certain piece of music!

In the same way as it takes several services and technologies to make the notion of live TV obsolete—aside from where it makes sense, like sports—each of these can be taken apart to show how it required several lower-level technologies to come together in just the right way.

Take iPlayer. Obviously, broadband had to become ubiquitous. But there are many less obvious factors at work. The significant improvements in audio and video codecs, helped along by affordable speed increases in computing devices. The progress the browser vendors have made, along with the rather more moderate progress Flash has made, were needed before we could make compelling experiences. Backend storage of all content in digital forms rather than on tape. Advances in distributed application architectures to allow for such volumes of data to be efficiently managed and used. The list goes on.

Again, several parts had to be in place for PVRs. Digital TV was needed before simple and cheap PVRs could be made—a digital stream can be streamed to disk easily, whether as an analog signal cannot. Electronic program guides needed to happen so we could easily choose programs to record. And again, the relentless improvements in cost:performance ratios lead to electronics and storage cheap enough to make the technology not only affordable but cheap.

Take a look at each of these lists. The most striking thing is that so many of the technologies involved were not invented to make viewing TV live a thing of the past. Electronic program guides were designed to help humans schedule, but they have been re-purposed to help machines schedule instead. The rise of Flash for video came as a bit of a surprise to Adobe, as evidenced by its terrible performance on non-Windows platforms. It took someone inventive to see what we could have if we put them together in just this manner.

Even as we speak, Bittorrent and video download sites worldwide are proving people find geographical content restrictions just as obsolete1. I can watch US TV shows as soon as they air, on demand. It’s illegal right now, but why? Let me pay a reasonable sum for the service and I’ll happily do it. Spotify’s £10 a month seems a sweet spot, when you have the right volume of content. Several available services already have that volume for free, so the technology is there just begging to be used.

Just use an open architecture that allows me to build a plex plugin rather than use your crummy website, okay?

1 Just as they destroy the need to watch or listen at certain times.

.:.