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Media Moves Online

December 21, 2009

Technology has torn down the walls between different communications media. Magazines produce video clips, while television news stations post written articles online. The technologies that are driving this media convergence are network connections, powerful mobile devices, clever interfaces, and easy-to-use software.

One of the most visible manifestations of the new technology is the rise of “we media,” or citizen journalism, which enables all kinds of people to post anything they want online (see “Mainstream News Taps Into Citizen Journalism”). Several companies, including TypePad, WordPress, and Vox, offer blog platforms that can be used as is or customized with plug-in software to support sophisticated media sites. Sites like YouTube and similarly make it easy to share video content.

Book publishers, meanwhile, are seeing a boom in electronic readers, thanks in large part to the display technology made by E Ink of Cambridge, MA (see “Companies to Watch”). Its electronic ink is used in all the major e-readers, including Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Reader. Though they are using similar display technologies, e-book makers are looking to distinguish their products by adding new features: support for audio books or other types of media, for example, or digital rights management that allows users to loan e-books to friends. These dedicated e-readers are expected to face more competition from new smart phones, which offer touch-screen interfaces and large catalogues of third-party applications.

Smart phones are also becoming devices for watching video, thanks to technologies such as variable-bit-rate compression. This compression technology, which reduces the size of video files by using more data for complex segments of audio or video and less for simpler content, enables high-quality video to come through smoothly even with limited bandwidth. Compressed video streamed over the Internet through sites such as Hulu and Netflix is now a viable alternative to DVD players and cable television, and new television sets such as the Sony Bravia can play video directly from Internet feeds. Startups such as Boxee have created software that makes it easier for users to play and share personal and Internet media on a television.

Ashley Still, group product manager of Flash media distribution at Adobe Systems, says that as new protocols make the Internet faster at handling video content, a software video player or television can increasingly become “more than just a dumb rectangle playing back content.” Thanks to the new protocols, interactive applications can stream as well. OnLive, for example, is streaming high-performance video games to users over the Internet–something that was previously unheard of, because delays would have ruined the game experience.

Mobile media devices are flying off the shelves

Easy digital distribution has also detached content from its source. Internet protocols such as Really Simple Syndication (RSS) allow users to automatically gather items of interest from websites whenever they’re updated, in some cases reading or viewing them on a secondary site rather than visiting the original. Experts are working on new protocols that will deliver these updates faster. To deter piracy and gather audience statistics for advertising purposes (see “Bringing Advertisers Back”), new tools have been developed to track where people are talking about or consuming a piece of content.

Some media companies are embracing this distribution model by making it even easier to spread articles or videos around. They are creating application program interfaces, or APIs, that allow third-party developers to access their content and use it for products such as smart-phone applications, and media companies themselves are using APIs provided by social-­networking sites such as Facebook to publish content on those sites.

The combined effect of these technologies will be to bring new media together into a “real-time Web.” In this new environment, any piece of content produced will be discovered and discussed online almost instantaneously.

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