Pods, Pocket Computers and the end of the Myth of Live Broadcasting

Speaking notes for: Podcasting seminar, 7 March 2006, National Press Club, Canberra


  1. Introduction
  2. Pocket Computers
  3. iPod
  4. Podcasting
  5. Podcasting and Advertising
  6. Death of the Myth
  7. Regulation of Podcasting
  8. Flying Podcasts

    See Also

  9. More on Podcasting
  10. Home


Media speculation suggests Microsoft will release a tablet computer on 9 March 2006:

Although Microsoft continues to play somewhat coy, sources have provided a pretty clear picture of the mini-tablet devices. They will carry Microsoft's software, but be made by several other companies, sources have said. They will also be larger than a typical handheld computer, with at least some of the devices using a roughly 7-inch screen.

From: Microsoft whispers Origami details, By Ina Fried, CNET News.com Published on ZDNet News: March 2, 2006, 10:59 AM PT

There is a Macromedia Flash web site for the project, which has the comment: "Origami Project: the Mobile PC running Windows XP". The Flash web site provides no more information, apart from the time of the planned Microsoft announcement.

It should be kept in mind that marketing induced media speculation about hi tech products has been wildly inaccurate in the past. As an example, "Ginger" was the code name for the Segway Human Transporter. Speculation before the release included that it was some form of hover craft or personal helicopter. It turned out to be an impractical electric scooter.

Pocket Computers

Miniature computers are not new. I have owned a few, variously called pocket computers, subnotebooks, and tablet computers. Some fold open like a miniature laptop, some are a single slab with a keyboard fixed below the screen and resembled oversize PDAs. The Z88, from Sir Clive Sinclair's Cambridge Computers, was a bit big to qualify as a pocket computer, but had a rubber keyboard which made it handy to use as a tray to carry a cup of coffee and sandwich, when writing in a cafe. Some of these ran Microsoft software, but most used proprietary operating systems and applications. All these units suffered from small keyboards, dim small screens, clumsy pointing devices and poor communications.

One of the most practical of the miniature computers was the Sphere Pocketbook Palm Top PC. This was a little larger than a VHS video tape, ran on two AA batteries and used the MS-Dos operating system, with a copy of Microsoft works in RAM. It was a clamshell design with a 7 inch screen and a miniature keyboard (about the size and shape expected for Microsoft's Origami). In 1994 I carried this unit around Europe with an external acoustic coupled modem. I used it to keep in touch with Australia and edit what became the ACS's networking policy.

The PDA killed off the pocket computer as a mainstream product. The PDA success came from not trying to do everything a PC did. The PDA dispensed with a keyboard and PC format screen. It was not for entering large amounts of text, or displaying word processing documents. Its portrait format screen and stylus pointing device were ideal for looking at a calender entries and contact details downloaded from a PC. PDAs have been growing larger and sprouting small keyboards, much like pocket computers. They have been merging with cellular phones, with wireless Internet access. SMS messaging has made the idea of typing on a small keyboard more acceptable. But these large PDAs still are not a widely accepted product.

Some laptops have shrunk to the point where they and the large PDAs are around the size pocket computers were. Also there are tablet computers and similar devices for applications such as warehousing. But these are not mainstream consumer products.

The most interesting pocket computers have come from or for developing nations. The $100 Laptop, from Nicholas Negroponte at MIT is an attempt to make a low cost device for the third world. Far more likely to succeed is the Mobilis Linux device from India.

Assuming it happens, will Microsoft's Origami be a success? General purpose miniature computers have never been a success. PDAs succeeded by specializing in being an electronic diary. Origami might succeed in building on iPod's success as an entertainment device. A 7 inch screen may seem small for watching movies, but is the size used for in-car and aircraft entertainment systems. This is the biggest screen you can fit on the back of headrest and as big as you can reasonably carry around in one hand (the size of a paperback book).


What does all this about pocket computers have to do with iPods and Podcasting? The iPod from Apple Computer is a portable digital media player. The iPod legimitised downloaded digital music and made it a business with Apple's iTunes Music Store. Later iPods can play video as well as audio files. The iPod screen is about half the size of a credit card. This may seem small, but when held in the hand gives an image about the size of a 7 inch screen in a car.

The iPod is the PDA of entertainment. Just as the PDA was used (originally) to access business data downloaded from a PC, the iPod is used to play music files downloaded from a PC. Newer iPods can play QVGA (320 x 240) resolution video as well. But the essential point is that the iPod is successful because it does not attempt to be a full function PC, just a player.


Podcasting is the distribution of media files using web based syndication to iPod type devices. The media files were originally digital music, but can be audio books and video. It is likely we will see multimedia podcasts as the capabilities of the players improve. One of my ANU students is working on adding SMIL multimedia to allow true web based multimedia podcasting.

Podcasting uses RSS or Atom syndication, popularised with blogs (web logs) to distribute content. These are small XML files which provide an automated catalog of material available. The user can subscribe to an RSS (or ATOM) "feed" and then receive podcasts automatically to their PC. These can then be loaded into a connected player.

Using the Internet for broadcasting like services is not a new idea. Carl Malamud presented "Internet Talk Radio" in 1993. These were provided for download as a digital audio files (and are still available online thirteen years later). However, there general assumption was that this was a stopgap measure until the Internet was fast enough to stream content in real to produce something like broadcasting. A protocol called multicasting was added to the Internet to provide broadcasting like services efficiently.

Having to select an audio file to download and then wait for it to download and the play made downloaded audio a tedious process. Streamed audio (and video) seemed a much better idea. The internet is now fast enough to stream audio (and for some broadband users video). Internet radio stations have sprung up using this technology. However, ITunes and the iPod popularised the idea that download media files could be easy to use. Podcasting made this an automated process: after the user has subscribed to a feed, then then just need to plug in their iPod to load the content.

By freeing the user from having to oversee the download process and allowing it to happen in the background, podcasting is revolutionising "broadcasting". Rather than using stored content being a problem, it becomes a convenience. You don't have to listen when the program is broadcast, not even make sure your recorder is on when it is active. You recorded can collect the material you want when it is available.

Podcasting and Advertising

The Internet was developed on the "build it and they will come" model. That is if the technology is good, people will find a use for it and someone will work out how to pay for it (and perhaps make it profitable). The web induced stock market crash at then end of the last century showed that not every clever Internet technology would be a business success. Podcasting provides an efficient rival to broadcasting, but will it be profitable? One may be via advertising.

Google has built a successful business with web based advertising. This depends on careful targeting of the interests of the reader and the ability of web based content to include links to an active advertisement server. This has been successful because the advertisements are selected based on the content of the web page the user selects and information about the user (such as where they are). The advertisements are therefore much more relevant to the user's interests (see if the advertisements on this web page related to the content). This same technique can and is being applied to video.

Revver.com provide digital videos supported by advertising. Unlike broadcast TV, and as with Google advertising, the advertisements are not fixed. Revver.com's uses Apple's Quicktime format, which allows a link to be included in the video to report on viewing of the ad. In this way the advertisements can be tailored to the interests of the viewer and the needs of the advertiser. New advertisements can replace old and they can be targeted at specific regions of the world. Apple Quicktime was the basis of the MPEG-4 video standard being built into new media players and it is likely that this advertising capability will be further developed.

Google's advertising for web pages relies on an Internet connection between the user's web browser and Google's advertising server. This system will not work with Podcasting, where content is downloaded and stored in the iPod. However, Google and other online advertisers are testing advertisements for RSS and Atom feeds. This should fit well with Podcasting which also uses these feeds. The advertisements can be selected and downloaded at the same time the feed content is being downloaded. Once loaded to the iPod the advertisement will be fixed. But even so they will have been individually selected based on the podcast content and the user's profile.

Podcasting and the Death of the Myth of Live Broadcasting

Google news collects stories on a topic from different news organisations and presents them together. What it shows is that most news organisations are presenting essentially the same news sourced from a few bureaus, based on media releases. As an example searching Google news for "microsoft origami", produced 567 items. Google's software grouped 197 of these together with a Reuters report, speculating on Microsoft's origamiproject.com teaser web site. This makes it clear these are not 197 sources of news, but essentially the same one source of news, written by Microsoft's PR staff, fleshed out by a few others and then reproduced 197 times.

Podcasting will similarly destroy the myth of "live" TV broadcasting. TV broadcasters create the illusion that their content is "live to air", up to the minute and crafted by that station for their viewers. But the evening TV news "updates" are typically prerecorded just after the early evening news. Like the print media, TV news comes from a few sources, being bureaus and media event scripted by organisation PR staff.

In effect broadcasting organisations don't broadcast, so much as select preprepared content for distribution. With Podcasting, this becomes obvious to the viewer. This doesn't mean they will not want old content (Apple is selling downloaded videos of old TV shows), but will make it clear to the viewer what they are getting is old recorded content. This provides the opportunity for new types of program, new forms of intermediation and disinterintermediation.

As an example a 24 hour "live" news TV channel contains very little genuine live new news. Most of the content is recycled (and the same on different channels). With a Podcast, the viewer to get just new content they haven't seen before. Also the viewer can subscribe to stories they are particularly interested in. This much be concerning traditional broadcasters as what currently fills several 24 hour news channels would reduce to a few minutes of Podcasting per day. However, this few minutes would be of interest to the viewer and may therefore attract a much higher price, either by direct subscription or advertising. Also many more specalised selections of information can be provided and forms of entertainment.

For several years I subscribed to Transact's digital TV service via a fibre optic in my apartment basement in Canberra. While there were several channels, about all that caught my interest were the car shows. There was only one hour of such content per week (30 minutes from BBC and DW), so I cancelled the service. If offered these programs by Podcast I would be happy to watch them, with locally inserted, custom car advertisements. In the future such programs might even be transmitted to the Linux touch screen computer embedded in the dashboard of the Indian made Reva NXG electric car.

Regulation of Podcasting

Just as the Internet has caused problems for media companies it has caused problems for Government policy makers with regulation of the media. The Australia government walks a fine line between keeping current broadcasting companies and the viewing public happy. This approach has failed with digital TV broadcasting. Most of the benefits of digital broadcasting have been blocked by regulation, in order to maintain the current TV broadcasting regime. The slow take up of digital TV set-top-boxes is not surprising, as they provide little benefit for the viewer, apart from a better picture. The popularity of SMS has shown that users do not necessary want a pretty picture.

The extra content which could have been provided via digital broadcasting has been blocked by government. Use of the spectrum for innovative new formats has been stopped by regulations which prevent data-casting of any content which might be interesting to the viewer, or profitable to the broadcaster.

The Internet and the web provide an example of where limited government regulation has worked reasonably well. The ACS was one of the organisations which provided policy advice on the Internet, web censorship and spam. Podcasting can happen the same way, with some limited regulation.

Apart from technologists, it was Librarians who helped policy makers come to terms with the Internet. It was librarians who set up the Australian Government's web site structure. Similarly we need to look to those literate in digital video with help on podcasting. An example are video artists and theorists, such as Dr. Linda Wallace and Adrian Miles and the Australian Film Commission with its Podlove initiative.

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