It was perhaps the worst kept secret in tech for a few weeks running, but Apple’s unveiling of the iPhone 4 and accompanying iOS 4 operating system represents more than yet another glitzy excuse to hype a few new features. OK. It was kind of that. But here’s the deal: These new features—some of which were added to keep up with Google-fueled Android smartphones—could greatly affect the multiplatform strategies of content providers everywhere. Add to the mix the interestingly timed announcement last week that exclusive iPhone carrier AT&T would stop offering all-you-can eat data plans (Verizon is rumored to be considering the same restrictions), and the wireless content world seems to be changing faster than most content providers and app developers can tweak their business plans.
Here’s what we know: Apple’s new iPhone 4 really takes video to the next level—especially when it comes to the user-generated variety. Its new camera shoots at 720p HD that users can now edit and watch immediately right on the new iPhone’s ridiculously high-resolution screen dubbed the “Retina Display.” Apple engineers, who really need a vacation, developed pixels that are insanely tiny—just 78 micrometers wide—enabling them to pack 4 times more of them into the same 3.5-inch screen. This means that premium HD content produced by top cable nets will look incredibly good even on that small device. And meanwhile, the higher pixel count should make it easier to create content once for both the larger iPad screen and the smaller iPhone screen. Right now, there’s actually a big disparity in pixel counts and other tech between those two devices, and that affects not just video but also the development of iPhone apps, many of which come from cable programmers and operators. In fact, the new iPhone employs a lot of iPad technology, including Apple’s new and faster A4 processor and other wares that greatly enhance iPhone battery life (The short battery life on current iPhone models is a constant pet peeve of even the most die-hard Apple fans). It looks like Apple will ultimately shoot for basic tech parity between iPhones and iPads, which should help everybody on the development side.
Also interesting is the new front-facing camera, which will allow video chat sessions on the go. But while this as a fun way for friends to connect, consider the many other creative applications that smart programmers could build around this two-camera set-up. It seems almost certain that someone will come up with a way for groups of people to, say, watch a cable TV show together from many remote locations with each iPhone 4 user chiming in via video box about the show in real time as its plot thickens. Such software could come from a cable programmer, cable operator or an unrelated third party like Facebook. In addition, gaming developers could create fun new twists on the many iPhone apps now used by cable nets to promote shows. For example, how about giving folks the ability to watch a new episode, trailer or 5-minute clip while also showing their reactions and commentary at the bottom of the screen. Then they could post that real-time video review to the Web site the same way that people post comments now. A particularly interesting commentary could go viral and, instead of quick blurbs about a show, now you have user reviews that occur in real time while the person watching the review also sees the show in action (and therefore can make his or her own decision about whether the reviewer’s comments are right or wrong). Just think about the possibilities. It’s true that we could be doing this right now with standard Webcams connected to PCs and Macs—but let’s face it: There’s just something more spontaneous about posting something when the mood strikes you from a mobile device. Who knows? We could see the next generation of TV reviewers squeezing in their pontifications while bored at airports and Jiffy Lubes.
But before we get too excited, let’s also consider the trend toward metered data pricing on wireless plans. Does this sound familiar, cable industry? Yes, AT&T’s announcement that it will start metering data for new users sounds similar to Time Warner Cable’s attempt last year to look into the idea for broadband users. That created an uproar, and TWC stepped back from the ledge. And now, bloggers are crucifying AT&T for implementing the same idea on the wireless side. But the bigger issue is that metering could limit the amount of streaming video that people call up on their devices—and this has major implications for content providers trying to foster new advertising markets (and even subscription models) on the mobile platform. This is a bit of a paradox. On one hand, we have unprecedented multimedia power in the iPhone 4 and other mobile devices such as those using Google’s Droid OS, along with an unprecedented amount of online content available. But all that power encourages more usage, which taxes wireless networks and ultimately leads to worse network performance for everyone. So network owners are trying to limit usage. The truth is that many consumers aren’t willing to suddenly ratchet back their habitual use of multimedia. It’s too ingrained in their daily routines. Many will pay for the privilege—whether it’s metered or not. And that will hopefully swell enough corporate coffers to justify the accelerated network upgrades necessary to cope with all of this demand. Furthermore, consumers will gravitate to the most data-friendly carriers, so it’s a safe bet that many will continue to offer unlimited data plans to differentiate themselves from those that meter. But unfortunately, those plans might start to get more expensive. Whether it’s the iPhone, the iPad or countless other data-hungry gadgets out there, those with network capacity need to serve the market. And that market’s growing. Fast.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX)