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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Three Screens Problem

Om Malik has an interesting piece on his weblog, about the "three screens" - TV, computer, handheld - and how and whether they might merge.
"Walk into any Silicon Valley gathering and all you’ll hear is one person after another pontificating on 'the three screens that dominate our digital lives.' The three screens, of course, are television, the personal computer, and the cell phone, which these same people then posit will merge. One cannot blame the chattering classes for thinking along these lines. After all, phones can display webpages, crusty cable companies are beaming more of their stuff digitally, and affordable HDTV plasma screens display it all with great acuity. There’s only one problem: Companies are thinking about it all backward."
The rest of Om's article can be found here.

The problem as Om poses it, is that the three screens are so very different from each other in size and in purpose, that they pretty much exclude having a shared use. The solution he proposes is to develop a media content model expressly suited for mobile - something that will fit nicely on a small, low-res screen that you don't have very much time (or inclination) to look at. My response (which I posted in slightly different form on his blog) follows.

That title, "The Three Screen Problem" - sounds like an ancient Taoist riddle. :) But I disagree with the problem as you pose it. And the solution you propose - a parallel content model expressly for mobile - I also respectfully disagree with. It was just such a model - and the same presumption of static paradigms - that led to the dead end that is WAP.

To see the three screens as being discrete assumes that their form and their content offerings are also discrete and unchanging - three separate paradigms forever resigned to remaining so. But in fact the whole point is to see how the developing technology might allow the paradigms to shift and merge. And the way that might happen is this:

A larger screen on the wall at home implies considerable leisure time and potential group use. Its very nature excludes mobility.

A somewhat smaller screen on your desk at the office implies time spent there doing serious work, and also excludes mobility.

A portable screen, on your handheld and/or as an adjunct to the handheld, is obviously intended for use while on the go.

Now suppose your handheld has some sort of TiVo-like capability - a kind of RSS feed for video. In that case, you can select what you watch according to what is appropriate at a given time. Probably you're not going to start watching 2001: A Space Oddysey on your mobile while standing in line to buy movie tickets. Instead, you might call up the news or a music vid. During a longer wait, though, you might very well start watching that film.

Say you're at the beach, on a plane, or sitting on a train during a long commute. In those cases you might naturally pull out the roll-up or fold-away OLED screen (maybe it measures 5 X 7) and watch an entire movie, or a TV episode. You might even dispense with the larger screen altogether and just use the regular screen.

And the reason why you might feel comfortable doing this is that the resolution and sound quality of the device as I envision it is quite high. And as those things improve, along with the content available for them, the paradigm of film and video changes, from a primarily communal activity, to one that is primarily individual, like reading a book is now.

When that happens, you will still have your screen on the wall at home and the screen on the desk at work, because these are best suited for their environments. But the content will be shared between the three screens, depending on where you are. That's how I see all this happening.

I can even see how, at home, you might find you're not in the mood for the large wall screen, and instead choose to curl up in a corner, to watch something on your handheld.

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