Monday, May 04, 2009

Has Over-The-Air Delivery of Audio and Video Changed the Definition of Downloadable Media?

Posted this on the Association for Downloadable Media's website. Reposting here.

Last year, the advent of the iPhone was heralded as the beginning of a new age for mobile content delivery. Bloggers, analysts, and industry insiders urged publishers to quickly adopt a mobile strategy, deliver their content in iPhone-ized web pages and iPhone apps, and follow consumers as they flocked to this platform. According to recent reports, that was good advice. AdMob reported in February that the iPhone generated a third of the global smartphone traffic, and half the traffic in the US. But consumers also view digital media on their Blackberry Curves, Pearls, Storms and Bolds—not to mention the up-and-coming Android phones. As the number of platforms that support over-the-air delivery of high quality audio and video grows, how does this impact the way publishers think about downloadable media?

For a long time, we’ve struggled to make the distinction between “downloads”, “progressive downloads” and “streams”. In the mind of the consumer, it’s all a bit of a mixed stew. Consumers select media to watch or listen to, and it starts playing sooner or later. They may play that content while connected to the internet (via wi-fi or a cellular network), or perhaps they’ve saved it to play on a non-connected device. More and more, the device they carry with them allows access to live media delivered on demand. Is this still downloadable media?

Rather than characterizing the content you develop based on the method of delivery to the consumer, your focus should (obviously) be on the quality of the content itself, and then delivering it in a way that is compatible with consumer habits. As consumers expect to find more rich content on demand from their smartphone, it behooves publishers to make it available that way. Assumptions made about the delivery method (for example, assuming all content will be delivered to iPods via iTunes) may impact the systems you have in place for monetization. It’s probably time to revisit those assumptions in light of the growing trend for over-the-air streamed delivery.

If the world were made only of iPhones and iPod Touches, accommodating direct delivery of media would be rather straightforward. Despite the success of these devices, the universe of video-capable smartphones is still a rather (and increasingly) fragmented space. The video formats, encoders, resolutions, and even delivery protocols vary across devices and carriers. Reaching these disparate platforms does not necessarily require an on-deck solution with every carrier, but there are dimensions to this problem that don’t exist in delivery and playback on the desktop, the iPod, or iPhone. Emerging solutions exist that simplify this problem for publishers, and depending on your monetization strategy (for example, direct ad sales and trafficking vs. an ad network) and the level of control you wish to have over distribution, there may be a system that works in conjunction with the methods you’ve used for “traditional” downloadable media.

If you haven’t done so already, it’s probably time to start thinking beyond the iTunes/iPod-centric notion of downloadable media distribution. And if you’ve just extended your thinking to the iPhone/Touch, there may be opportunities you’re missing on other video-capable devices. Vendors will endeavor to address the publisher’s need to deliver content to consumers where ever they can, while making this process as simple as delivering content to the desktop browser. Successful publishers will know the constraints and opportunities created by this expanding universe of playback environments, and leverage these solutions to their benefit.

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