Tech toys trigger tough questions

It's difficult to keep track of new content-delivery methods

Anyone who covers TV and media is inundated almost daily by announcements regarding new technology — so much so that there’s a tendency to zone them out.

Given the rate of change, though — and the precipice upon which TV content delivery appears to be sitting — one ignores such information at their peril. What’s needed is a method to separate genuine contenders from the onslaught of pretenders.

Toward that end, it makes sense to apply fundamental journalistic principles to the process. Nobody has precise answers at this point as to how the industry is going to evolve (and be suspicious of anyone who claims that they do), but it’s possible to ask the right questions.

A few days ago, for example, I observed a demonstration by Logitech for its new Revue box to be used in conjunction with Google TV, which is promising “a new experience” that provides “infinite access to content.”

On paper, what more could you possibly want? Yet like past presentations from Microsoft and Apple that pledged to revolutionize the TV business, the sales pitch — impressive as it was in some respects — didn’t leave me feeling entirely sold.

Here, then, is a filtering guide for new entertainment technology, accumulated through personal insights as well as discussions with others examining the same chessboard.

Who, in success, do you put out of business? No, it doesn’t have to be as clear-cut as cassette vs. eight-track, or how Netflix and alternative means of movie delivery have helped push Blockbuster into bankruptcy.

Just as iTunes killed the album, growing use of DVRs has made tape-recording a thing of the past in millions of households. The Web rendered print a too-late delivery system for breaking news. And so on.

Cable is perceived as the next embattled incumbent, with Wall Street Journal columnist Holman W. Jenkins Jr. suggesting it is “perhaps wedded to a business model that just can’t be saved.” That’s certainly possible — junk the clunky wires and dishes — but it’s still unclear who or what is going to administer the last rites.

What problem does your product solve? Former TV exec Scott Siegler, who now heads his own media-investment management group MediaSiegler, offered this helpful criterion. If your product doesn’t significantly improve something, why must I have it?

Logitech’s Ashish Arora, GM of the Digital Home Group, said the Revue will solve consumers’ “hardware mess” and enable them to access all their favorite content on “the most beautiful TV” in the house — that is, the big one in the living room.

That’s a start, but for $300, I’m not sure it puts anybody but ardent early adopters over the top just yet.

Where is the precedent for something like this working? Nothing is completely new under the sun, and trends often begin across the globe. Is someone else doing something similar?

The U.K. is at the forefront of mobile technology, just as Europe has been way ahead of

the U.S. in employing portable credit-card scanners. Visit Hong Kong, and you’ll enjoy great cellphone reception in the subway. There’s more flowing back and forth across the oceans, in media terms, than just reality-TV formats.

When do you expect change to happen? Just because the technology exists doesn’t mean the transition occurs overnight. Is it three years before the concept takes hold? Five? Because if the forecasting looks any farther out than that, frankly, take that crystal ball and go bowling with it.

Replay TV largely mirrored TiVo — which now has its own problems — and actually offered some superior features. But the market couldn’t support both at the time, and it’s now little more than a memory from that long-lost decade, the ’00s.

As Siegler put it, “A good idea too early is the same as a bad idea.”

Why do we need this? There are terrific (and pricey) high-tech gadgets available that help clean up after your dog and cat. For most people, though, a couple of plastic bags and a litter box work fine, even if it means holding their noses for a minute.

Is this truly something a lot of people are going to want, in other words, or a toy for the wealthy few?

How do you proceed from here? OK, let’s stipulate it’s a great idea. Who’s going to put up the money for this, and when can they expect to see reasonable returns on that investment? Can what you’re talking about be manufactured and distributed efficiently? How does it stand apart from the crowd?

Admittedly, these considerations aren’t foolproof. The iPad, for one, didn’t necessarily solve a problem so much as take what existed and simply do it better — or at least deliver the same array of options in a niftier package.

Still, come up with satisfying answers to the above questions and congratulations: Allowing for intangibles, blind spots and curveballs, you’re about a third of the way toward potentially hitting paydirt — unless, of course, someone else delivers a world-changing gizmo that renders yours irrelevant.

“That’s the hardest one of all,” Siegler says, “because that’s the question you have the least control over.”

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