New Platforms Are Exponentially Expensive

An interview with Microsoft’s Amir Majidimehr, corporate vice president for Consumer Media Technology, provides a glimpse into Microsoft’s vision and strategy for digital media.

There’s a bit of corporate apparatchik speak(“the great strength, quality, and flexibility of Windows Media should not be limited to PCs only”), but Majidimehr speaks openly about the challenges that Microsoft has faced in moving Windows Media from PCs to home, mobile, and other devices.

One thing that’s often lost on web-biased technologists is that each platform on which you want to support your media ecosystem adds exponentially greater complexity, in both technical and business challenges.

When technology companies talk about where media goes, you’ll hear the phrase: “One Foot, Three Foot, Ten Foot.” This represents the triad of channels/windows through which the majority of people buy, view, and share media: One Foot is your mobile device; Three Foot is your PC; Ten Foot is the big(ger) screen in in your living room.

Solving Web video problems – the Three Foot challenge – is the easiest. As Majidimehr notes, media clients (decoders) can quickly be updated via always-on web connections, so you can rev your codec frequently. Hardware is relatively standardized and usually of good quality and recent manufacture. More cynically, expectations are low – if it “just works”, most end users will be content.

However, the other two arms of that triad are much more challenging.

Three Foot
Mobile video means a drastically different business model, working with carriers who control access to media and care about ARPU and little else, and device manufacturers who care about manufacturing and codec licensing costs, runtime footprints, and squeezing every last drop of performance out of a mobile processor. Not to mention that the carriers and device manufacturers get along as well as two Bettas sharing the same tank

Ten Foot
Move to the living room and face a huge installed base of legacy hardware that can’t decode or playback your video, MSOs/Telcos/Satellite who need full support for your protocols and codecs throughout their massive storage and delivery infrastructure before they’ll even think of deploying, and a dozen different Consumer Electronics manufacturers who need your codecs stable (i.e. frozen for years), widespread, and cheap.

In other words: there’s a lot more to bringing a codec to a new platform than just porting the player to a different OS, and I sympathize with the issues that Majidimehr talks about.

One other quote I found too provocative to let slide. In discussing the rise of Flash video, Majidimehr says:

“The biggest factor to that shift is installed market share—Flash is second only to Windows Media player in installed base for web video playback.”

Interesting statement. Is that all installed versions of WMP? Does that count multiple installations on the same PC? Are we counting back to the NetShow Player? I would love to see the statistics behind that claim.

There is a difference between “installed base” and “currently addressable base”. Argue all you want over Adobe’s published Flash Player penetration numbers, but you’d be hard pressed to find many folks doing PC-based streaming media who would not scratch their heads at Mr. Majidimehr’s statement above.