Media Utopia

(Warning, semi-rambling post ahead…)

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we use media.  A little over a year ago, we joined the DVR revolution with DirecTv’s DVR option, and this taste of flexibility has highlighted exactly how far behind technology we’re lagging in consumer experience.  The DVR is a nice little island utopia.  As long as we’re at the TV with the DVR, the kids have their pick of their favorite shows.  My wife and I can watch a show that we missed, or that we recorded because it was too late for us to stay up.  Unfortanely as soon as you sail away from the island, all is lost.  The DVD player in the car can only serve up movies that we have physical discs for (what an archaic concept!).  My Zune only holds music, videos and pictures that I explicitly put onto is (I don’t keep a lot of media on my computer, so I have to go out of my way to sync stuff.)  My family pictures, home movies, and other digital media mostly lives on our Windows Home Server, which makes it very accessible to our home computers, but not very useful on the road.

What would utopia look like?  Media shared everywhere. If my family owns it, I want it available wherever.

In practice, it’s not this simple.  How would data get from the DVR to the server?  How do you deal with devices with limited storage (come to think of it, every device has some sort of limit)?  How does data get onto the Zune, into the car, etc.

I’m thinking that a simple provider-subscriber model could work.  Each device would advertise it’s content using a format that could describe the media in enough detail that subscribers could make sense of it, and then they could make decisions about retrieving the media (RSS with enclosures might work as-is or with minor extension).  Each device would also have a configurable subscriber profile that would define what it would actively retrieve, or what it would make available by reference.  So, for example:

  • DVR Records a bunch of shows.
  • DVR publishes listings with metadata via RSS.
  • Windows Home Server retrieves RSS from DVR.  Based on its settings WHS will actively retrieve some shows that I’ve set to archive and save them on the server.
  • These shows will be added to WHS’s published RSS, with some sort of UID included so that the DVR doesn’t think it needs to copy them back.

or:

  • WHS stores some home movies.
  • WHS publishes a listing of home movies via RSS.
  • DVR subscribes to this listing, and makes them available via the DVR _by reference_, basically it doesn’t make a local copy, but you can view the movies on your TV by selecting them through the DVR interface after which they are streamed from the WHS.  (Wouldn’t want to waste the DVR’s limited drive space by making a local copy.)

The scenarios go from there.  You could set priorities for devices with smaller storage like my Zune30.  It could actively retrieve the most recent 2 episodes of each of my kid’s favorite shows, as well as the most recent episodes of Las Vegas (the one show I try to watch each week), and maybe also a few podcasts that WHS has downloaded for me. 

Ok, that last sentence made this a bit more interesting.  The subscriber/provider model extends. I can subscribe to internet feeds to acquire content.  If I want to, I can publish a feed of select home movies and my family members can subscribe to them.  The data flow might go:

  • Digital Camcorder uploads to Client computer. 
  • Client computer publishes via RSS. 
  • WHS subscribes to RSS and retrieves and archives media (archive action might actually remove it from client depending on settings). 
  • WHS adds home movies to its published feed.  
  • After reviewing the movies on the server I tag a few as “Share_Family” and they become available on a feed that is accessible from the internet. 
  • My extended family then can subscribe via their own WHS or a client application and the content will automatically be transferred to their local repository.

Feeds should be configurable, so that I can build custom feeds that filter by tag, time, format, media type, etc.  So basically each provider will have a single subscription endpoint, but the feed can be filtered, or alternately the client can retrieve the entire feed, and filter locally.  Also, authentication should be an option so that you can make a public/private distinction, or even control access in a more granular manner.

Ok, this has devolved into a bit of stream-of-consciousness rambling, but hopefully it conveys that the technology to do this is available today, but that the implementation is lagging.  DRM is a hurdle to open integration like this, but it’s not an insurmountable one.  Hopefully media companies will realize that if they make their content available and give consumers the freedom to use it in flexible ways, then the consumers will actually be more likely to consume the content.

(Disclaimer:  This post is pure speculation by me.  It does not convey any information from my current or future employers.  I do not know if anything like this is in development, I just wanted to throw out some ideas that might make the consumer experience better in the future.)

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Samsung SCH-u740, 5 Months Later

Back in June, I switched from a first-gen Motorola Q to a non Windows Mobile phone, a Samsung SCH-u740.  I’m still using the u740, and have some thoughts about how it stacks up to my previous phone.

Overall, it’s a bit of a mixed review for me.

Things that are much better about the u740:

Unlimited Mobile Web w/ VCast – Instead of paying $40 a month for unlimited data, I get unlimited Mobile Web by paying $15 a month for VCast.  My phone data use centers mostly around checking email and reading RSS feeds.  The mobile clients for both Live Hotmail and Gmail are very usable.  I recently switched form Newsgator to Google Reader, and while I used to read feeds all the time with Newsgator’s mobile reader, the mobile version of Google Reader is painful enough to use that I hardly ever open it up.  Regardless, Mobile Web is more than capable of allowing me to consume information (aka waste time) when I have a spare minute, and offset some other time that I would’ve spent staring at a regular computer.

Fast Application Startup – When you hit the camera button, the time to ready is very speedy compared with Windows Mobile.

Things that I miss about the Motorola Q and WinMo in general:

Pocket IE – As much as I cursed the partial compatibility of Pocket IE, it was leaps and bounds above the browser in Mobile Web.

QVGA Screen – Simply put, more pixels means more data on the screen, period.

Open platform – I like to tinker, and being able to try different applications, or even write some code every once and a while is nice.  No such luck with the u740

Summary

If not for the difference in data costs between the two, I would probably be back on Windows Mobile already. I know Windows Mobile data users probably actually use considerably more data than Mobile Web users, so I get the reasoning behind the price differential, but it’s too big of a monthly hit for me to justify it right now.

What I’d really like to see is a Windows Mobile 6 device in the same form-factor as the u740, and then if Verizon could cut their data plan back to $20 to $25 a month, I’d probably be sold.

What has Rick Been Up To? Part 2 – Putting on a Blue Badge

Let’s see… Since my life wasn’t busy enough with a new baby in the house, writing a book, trying to keep up with the whole MVP thing, and just in general having a very busy life, I have decided to add one more layer of complexity into the mix.

As of December 3rd, 2007, I will be joining Microsoft as an Escalation Engineer working in the Charlotte, NC office.  An unintended consequence of this is that I’ll no longer be able to hold the Microsoft MVP title for Windows Home Server.  From what I understand, I can continue to “serve” as an MVP until I take my spot as a FTE, and then my MVP status gets retired. 

Various friends and readers who have communicated with me in the past may know that I’ve had ambitions about working at Microsoft for a long time, and this final “fit” came together over the last couple months.

It’s a busy time, so I’m not going to promise anything quickly, but I have some rough notes around which I’m formulating a few blog posts about the Microsoft recruiting process and my own “journey”.  I think my “To Blog” list is at about 6 posts deep, and I’m not sure when I’ll get around to it.

In the mean time, if anyone is looking for a great family home in the Lexington Park MD area, check out: http://45693Spruce.com

Also, we’ve confirmed that one of my older kids has a bad cat allergy, so we’re trying to find a home for the last of our three cats, details can be seen here: http://www.animalrelieffund.org/animals/detail?AnimalID=321793