An article appeared in the New York Times technology section recently about Glenn Britt, the CEO of Time Warner Cable. The story? He doesn’t know what AirPlay is. Of course, many people don’t know what AirPlay is. For those of you who don’t know, Ai
rPlay is a software service from Apple that allows users to play content from one device onto another. You can play your iTunes music through AirPlay-enabled speakers for example or play a video from your iPhone on a TV connected to an AppleTV. That last part is why the CEO of a major cable and content provider should know about AirPlay. The media content ownership and delivery systems in the world are in a state of upheaval. The controversy has largely centered around file sharing, from Napster in the early 2000s up to the current conflicts surrounding the Pirate Bay.
It was a natural progression of the technology we had available. We figured out how to store music as small digital files that could be easily played, moved and copied. We connected everyone’s computers together in a giant network which made it extraordinarily easy to move data around. The files got small enough and the network got fast enough that even the least tech-savvy computer users among us had no trouble sharing a song or an entire album with a friend. But that someone optimized and anonymized that process is what would shake up an industry.
At this point things are a confusing mess with innovators fighting copyright holders and copyright holders trying to innovate in a way that will protect their bottom line. Television is particularly interesting right now as the networks and cable providers can’t seem to figure out what they want to do. Companies are tentatively embracing services like Hulu, Netflix and the iTunes Store as legitimate and affordable ways for consumers to watch movies and TV shows, but there is always a sword dangling above, waiting for a major network or movie studio to pull their license and leave paying customers without the content they paid to see. There are also strong signs of the desire of copyright holders to control the content they own.
Hulu was supposed to bring TV shows to everyone over the internet, but as they became more popular, they started restricting their service. Instead of being able to watch any show in the Hulu library, TV show episodes would rotate out. Other content was hidden behind the Hulu Plus paywall, reserved for paying customers. Hulu also started restricting which devices could access their content. One of the biggest shakeups was Hulu’s exit from Boxee which allowed people to use their computers as an entertainment system. Hulu similarly pulled the rug out from under Google TV in its infancy. Watching Hulu any way other than a traditional computer browser these days requires an app and a Hulu Plus subscription (as on the iPad) and some services like HBO GO don’t allow their content to be displayed on an external monitor. And again, this is why the CEO of Time Warner should know a thing or two about AirPlay. AirPlay is part of the iPhone, the iPad, iTunes, and after this summer, it will be part of the Mac operating system. When Mountain Lion becomes available for customers, they will be able to display their entire screen on a display connected to their AppleTV and suddenly any content that we can find on our computers can also be on our television. His words: “So the current Apple TV, the little thing, the hockey puck, really doesn’t do anything to help enable you to get Internet material on your TV.”
This is a twofold problem (at least.) If the content holders have no idea what technology consumers are using and what they want in a viewing experience, how can they make good decisions about how to provide and license their content and how can they do anything but respond to new and disruptive technology with lawsuits and awkward diatribes against piracy? I think we are past the point in our culture when we give people a pass for not understanding how technology works – not people who make a living from it and make legislative decisions about it. Part of the reason technology workers and enthusiasts are so put off by attempts to regulate (or not) technology is because these laws and restrictions are so obviously being created by people who don’t know the first thing about the technology they’re dealing with.