Video on Demand

''Television shows will continue to be broadcast as they are today for synchronous consumption. After they air, these show – as well as thousand of movies and virtually all other kinds of video – will be available whenever you want to view them. You’ll be able to watch the new episode of Seinfeld at 9:00pm on Thursday night, or at 9:13pm, or at 9:45pm or at 11:00am on Saturday.

''If you don’t care for his brand of humour, there will be thousands of other choices. Your request for a specific movie or television program episode will register and the bits will be routed to you across the network. The information highway will make it feel as though all the intermediary machinery between you and the object of your interest has been removed. You indicate what you want, and presto! you get it.

Credit where credit is due: the service described here is either being trialled or is actually available from a number of different vendors. Gates got it spot on.

BBC Integrated Media Player (iMP): Currently being trialled to evaluate both consumer demand and technical challenges. Following a programme's broadcast on television or radio, iMP can download that content for the user to enjoy for up to a week. Portable devices are also supported, so you should be able to watch Sunday night's Top Gear on your commute during the week without any hassles.

After the 7-day grace period, the DRM kicks in and programs are deleted. It is hoped that, by offering a legitimate method of obtaining BBC content over the internet, the level of piracy will drop. Of course, since the BBC is funded by UK residents through the quaint TV Licence scheme to the tune of £126.50 (US$220) per household per year, any downloads are likely to be limited to the UK. This will do nothing to curb the volume of Top Gear and other BBC original programming downloaded illegally worldwide every week.

iMP is still undergoing trials, offering 300 hours or 500 shows to a selected group of testers through a custom Peer-2-Peer (P2P) network. Depending on the evaluation of the public trial, and approval by the BBC Governors it may move to a full service in 2006. For more information, check out the iMP website.

Sky by Broadband: Now available free to existing Sky Digital subscribers, Sky by Broadband offers Hollywood blockbusters and Sky Sports highlights available for download. On the surface, it sounds ideal: you pay one monthly subscription fee and you can download anything you miss on telly. The trouble is, in reality, this is far from the case.

Sky claim that using a 1Mbit connection, a regular movie can be downloaded in about the same amount of time as the length of the film. We have heard from users who have experienced anything between a half that speed, all the way down to the 77 minute film that took over four hours to download on a 2Mbit broadband connection. This is, no doubt, because Sky have also adopted the cheaper P2P distribution model.

There are some 200 films on offer but the video quality of said films is also a sticking point for many. Some films are in widescreen, while others are in regular 4:3. Bitrates vary from title to title and "high definition it ain't". One blogger summed it up in five words: expect less than DVD quality.

iTunes Video: Launched on 12th October 2005, iTunes 6.0 allowed users to purchase, download and play video content from the iTunes Music Store. More than 3,000 music videos are now available, as well as selected content from NBC Universal, Sci Fi Channel, USA Network, ABC and Disney. For US$1.99, fans can download the latest episodes of Lost or Desperate Housewives 24 hours after they are broadcast.

iTunes is a server-client structure, so avoids the sometimes variable performance of P2P. Having paid your buck ninety-nine, some of which goes towards the cost of the network infrastructure, you'd hope you would be able to download content at blistering speed. Sadly, iTunes' popularity appears to match its capacity and speeds are merely adequate.

The other drawback is that even the might of Apple cannot overcome the inherent minefield that is international rights management. While the US iTunes store is flush with some of the best domestic TV content, the iTunes UK store is limited to music videos and Pixar shorts. So it seems if you live Stateside, you no longer have an excuse for Bit Torrenting your weekly fix of Jack Bauer but until the TV Networks can agree a model for global licensing, iTunes outside the US is useful only for music.

Having accurately foreseen the era of legally purchased, downloadable video content, one wonders what Gates would have thought in 1995 upon being told that, that ten years later, fierce rival Apple would be the dominant player in a market that Microsoft still has no competing service in.

Gates' foresight was not merely limited to downloadable media. Arguably, he also predicted the PVR - Personal Video Recorder:

''Even if a show is being broadcast live, you’ll be able to use your infrared remote control to start, stop, or go to any previous part of the program, at any time. If someone comes to your door, you’ll be able to pause the program for as long as you like. You’ll be in absolute control. Except, of course, you won’t be able to forward past part of a live show as it’s taking place.'

The modern PVR can come in many forms, from a set-top DVD Recorder with an in-built hard drive, all the way up to a 1080p dual-tuner Media Center system. With either, you can easily and seamlessly pause a live broadcast and even start playback of a recorded show before it has finished broadcasting.

For the tech-savvy geek in 2006, this may sound a little old hat. However, remember that in 1995, the humble VCR was still king for home recording and that random access was a concept limited to audio CDs - DVD movies didn't go mainstream until the late nineties and weren't recordable until the last few years.

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