Digital Media is Just a Battle That Will Soon Be Long Forgotten

Google took Google Music, previously a cloud storage solution for music files, out of beta today and added Google+ integration and music purchases from three of the four major labels as well as many independent labels. The result? An iTunes competitor and most of the pieces for a digital media platform to rival the platforms developed by Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft.

Almost all of these platforms now offer apps, games, ebooks, music, TV shows and movies (rental and/or purchase) on the web, in the cloud, and on a variety of consumer electronics. So what comes next for these platforms? The filling out of these offerings and general improvements in quality. Just to name a few, here are some of the announcements I expect to hear over the next year or two:

  • Higher bit rate 1080p HD TV shows and movies
  • Higher bit rate music
  • 3D video content
  • Digital Rights Management (DRM)-free video

With DRM-free music standardizing at a bit rate of 320 kbps in MP3 format (or similar quality AAC), look for the platforms to attempt to differentiate themselves by offering more expensive and higher bit rate “high definition” music soon.

Amazon and Apple offer some video content in 720p HD; expect the dam to break for 1080p HD early in 2012. 3D video will arrive somewhat later and will probable arrive around the same time Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft begin to offer 3D-capable screens on their consumer electronics. As for DRM, the first DRM-free video announcements probably won’t occur until the end of 2013, and only if the movie studios become convinced that removing this draconian measure will benefit them, like the music studios did a few years ago. Look for it soon after UltraViolet fails.

Over the next few years, 1080p will quickly become the standard video format across devices, the web, and the Cloud, enabled by fast broadband pipelines to the home and office, and the transition of pseudo 4G LTE cellular to true 4G LTE-Advanced cellular.

By 2014, with DRM-free media easily transmitted between platforms or accessible via apps available across platforms, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft will be poised to make the leap to 4K video, while also increasing their battle for the living room, via integrated services in 4K televisions, and the automobile. Unfortunately, these companies will be hard-pressed to distinguish themselves from one another using digital media at the pace they are competing with each other.

The increase in bit rate and addition of 3D or removal of DRM are just minor improvements in a battle that has been hard fought in the Platform Wars. That battle, however, is for the most part over, and it appears four or five platforms can co-exist successfully. To separate themselves from the crowd, the platform will need to do more than provide easy access to high-quality digital media. Thus, the platforms will soon have to compete based on interface and the addition of technologies heralded by developers of the Metaverse.

Siri thus becomes an important distinguishing capability of Apple’s platform. This AI provides a context-sensitive conversational interface. For Microsoft, gesture and voice recognition via its Kinect technology has helped it differentiate itself from Sony and Nintendo in gaming, and will likely help it do so against other consumer electronics companies. For its part, Amazon integrates well with a complete – digital and real items – ecommerce platform.

What then does Google have to distinguish itself from the pack? So far, nothing. However, it is likely that they are also working on an AI platform that can compete with Siri. They are also attacking the problem by integrating with their social networking platform, Google+.

I have not yet mentioned Facebook. Based on recent remarks by CEO, President and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook hopes to become a partner platform to all the other platforms. Yet they too have integrated apps, games, music, video and other digital media into their platform, and could easily launch competitive digital media offerings. Furthermore, they could eventually transform into a consumer electronics company with their social network platform more deeply integrated into their own devices than competitor devices.

Is a social network enough to compete in the Platform Wars, though? Is a social network an interface like an Intelligent Agent (Siri) or sensory array (Kinect)? Facebook is about to launch their new profiles platform: Timeline. This is a partially-automated framing of a person’s events and activities into a lifelog, one of the four major technologies that make up the Metaverse. As data is gathered about a person through their own reporting and increasingly sophisticated sensors, and then presented in a variety of useful ways via Timeline, a digital reflection of the person becomes apparent. A person can begin to interact with their own Timeline, perhaps eventually in a similar manner to how they interact with Siri.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google are laying the groundwork for their own individual take on another component of the Metaverse: Mirror Worlds. Google Earth is a 3D representation of the Earth, with layers adding additional data to the lay of the land. Already Google Earth has become an important component of the Maps app on iPhones and in Android smartphones. Apple is rumored to be building their own competitive mirror world, which would allow them to strip out Google Maps from iPhone. In time, these mirror worlds will serve as the basis for rich GPS-enabled devices with real-time traffic updates, offered for free as just one feature of smartphones and tablets.

Dreamworks, the movie studio well known for several 3D animated features, is working with Intel to add a layer of animation and interactivity to the web next year to make the web less text-centric and much more dynamic. Microsoft would seem to be especially well equipped to interface with this third component of the Metaverse: Virtual Worlds. Through voice and gesture recognition via Kinect, users could begin to move well beyond the typing and mouse gestures that are still the primary way for interacting with the web, and offer the means to leap frog over the intuitive multi-touch interface popularized by Apple iOS and Google Android. Even more than they are now, consumer electronics will become windows into other worlds, where information is presented in much more dynamic, colorful, and potentially extremely useful ways. Instead of scrolling through status updates like we do today in Facebook, Google+, Ping, LinkedIn, and Twitter, each post will become an object that can be manipulated alone or in mass in a variety of ways through the flourish of motion and voice prompting.

Finally, third-party developers of augmented reality – the fourth major component of the Metaverse – have begun to demonstrate how useful metadata added on top of a video stream of reality can be in mobile devices. The Android and iOS platforms lead the charge here, but Microsoft’s Kinect and Windows Phone 7 platform will likely serve as an ideal platform for augmented reality. Each of these platforms will spread to windshields, glasses, contact lenses and other devices where it makes even more sense to augment the reality we see.

For the time being, each of the major consumer-facing digital media platforms from Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft are finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate themselves, and all of them are seeking new capabilities based on their individual company’s strengths. The best way to sell their platforms to consumers and developers appears to do be by adopting components of the Metaverse. Apple, Google, and Microsoft appear to have the lead here, though Facebook through lifelogging may be a surprise entrant to the list very soon. Amazon appears to be the least equipped to compete, despite their foray into consumer electronics like the Kindle Fire tablet and their deep digital media offerings. What they do not appear to have, even in rumor, are any components that would lead to lifelogging, mirror worlds, virtual worlds, or augmented reality.

It remains unclear if any of these major platform companies even understand that the Platform Wars have already moved beyond digital media and into the very technological components that will lead eventually to the Metaverse. Furthermore, the combination of lifelogging, mirror worlds, virtual worlds, and augmented reality does not by itself result in the Metaverse. The Metaverse will be a Web of webs, a mass medium built on a next-generation internet that will adapt in real time to your needs, creating the right medium at the right moment.

The company that understands this will have the advantage and will likely win the Platform War. Once the Metaverse arrives (perhaps in the 2020s?), the digital media battles through now will be long forgotten, replaced by a medium that will dwarf in extend and capability all the services that were built on top of the Internet before it arrived. And digital media, today exemplified by individual consumables like ebook, music, and video files, will give way to information and entertainment provided in game- and life-like, “You are there!” sensory overloads of unimaginable complexity.