Monday, November 11, 2013

REPOST: Peering Into the Future of Media

The New York Times published an interesting story on the future of media and concluded that despite its technologically driven global advancement, it could take radical directions and diversify completely.

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The year is 2023, or ’33, perhaps. You’re having a rough morning. The alarm clock is silent, the coffee maker cold. Your iPyjamas, which promised to manage your routine, have let you down again. Maybe they failed to recognize your fingerprints.

Never mind. You check your e-mail (yes, we still use it) and read the headlines. They scroll by on the flexible screen on your sleeve, translated instantly into Burmese, your native tongue: “China threatens U.S. with semiconductor embargo if it reneges on debt”; “Brazil-Indonesia deal creates global technology giant”; “Nigerian sitcom a sensation in Europe.” You blink twice to signal yes when the Kellogg’s ad asks about automatically replenishing the depleted supply of cornflakes in your pantry.

Finally, as you are whisked to work in your driverless car, you have a minute to watch highlights of the soccer matches last night. Remember when you could watch sports only when and where the broadcasters wanted? For that matter, remember when we used to call it “television”? How quaint.

The seers predicted some of these changes when they promised, back in 2013 or so, that digital technology would transform the world. Within a few decades, they promised, advances in information technology would give us better government, better health care, better media and better education — even, wrote Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen of Google, in “The New Digital Age,” “automated and machine-precise haircuts.”

Politicians and human nature have proved to be more resilient than barbers. But the futurists were certainly right about one thing. Media, as a business and a cultural force, has been transformed.

Predicting the outcomeof a revolution is a fool’s game. Still, a few things are clear, even today, about the changes we are living through in the world of information, entertainment and communications.

The convergence of digital media and technology, under way since the dawn of the Internet, will accelerate. Distinctions between old and new media will fade; most media will be digital. Mobile devices, already the preferred media and Internet platform for many people, will continue to proliferate. We may wear them on our bodies or weave them into our clothing.

Globalization of the media business will advance, creating new markets. The old centers of media creation and consumption, the United States and Europe, will feel new competition from faster-growing regions: Asia, of course, but also Latin America, Africa and others. When that happens, media content, still dominated by Western notions of what constitutes news and entertainment, will have to adapt, too.

“Geography and technology will be the key drivers,” said Martin Sorrell, the chief executive of the advertising giant WPP.

A recent study by Cisco Systems, a provider of networking equipment, underlines the uncertainties. By 2017, it says, revenue in the media industry — defined broadly as everything from the sale of content to the provision of Internet access — could do anything from shrink slightly from the current level of just under $1 trillion to more than double. That is only four years from now.

Some industries, like music and newspapers, have already been through the wringer. While the recording industry showed its first revenue growth last year after a decade of decline, the upheaval in the newspaper business continues, as reflected in the sale of The Washington Post to Jeff Bezos of Amazon, announced this past summer.

Will television be next? Until now, it has held up better. TV audiences have fragmented as channels have proliferated, but overall viewer figures and advertising remain strong in much of the world.

But there are signs that this could change. Studies show a rise in “cord cutting” — that is, cancellations of pay-TV subscriptions — by American households. Instead of watching scheduled channels, more people are using on-demand services like Netflix, or simply doing without TV, as they log longer hours on the Internet.

Television, in other words, is starting to look more like the Internet, even as the Internet starts to look more like TV.

“When you get the ubiquity of smart devices, you stop talking about old media and new media — it’s all just media,” said Marcel Fenez, the global chief of the media and entertainment practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Digital technology has given more people the power to create media, and to distribute it around the world. Amateur journalists, photographers and filmmakers can now aspire to a global audience. Local entertainers can achieve international stardom.

Until the summer of 2012, few people outside South Korea had heard of Psy, a pudgy rapper with a reputation for cheesy dance moves and dubious lyrics. Today he is, by one measure, the biggest pop star of his time.

A little more than a year after Psy posted “Gangnam Style,” a video parody of Seoul’s nouveaux riches, on YouTube, it has been viewed nearly two billion times — more than any other video.

“In a digital era, any content can be accessed anywhere, anytime,” said Ross Dawson, the author of the book “Living Networks,” which, in 2002, predicted the growth of social networking. “Any media organization, anywhere, can aspire to a global audience.”

There are signs that the pace of innovation in smartphones is slowing. The introductions of new Apple iPhones no longer capture the imagination the way they once did; the advances are more incremental.

So technology companies are looking for the next big thing. Samsung has introduced a watch that links to its smartphones; Apple is said to be working on a similar device. Gadgets like these will connect us ever more intimately to the networked world.

Meanwhile, low-cost smartphones will bring the Internet to huge new audiences. The International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations body, says 2.7 billion people are currently connected, of a global population of more than 7.1 billion. Chinese companies now make smartphones that do most of what their better-known rivals do, at one-fifth or one-tenth the price.

A world of five billion or seven billion digitally connected consumers also creates huge opportunities — and challenges. Within 10 years, Mr. Sorrell said, three-quarters of WPP’s business will come from digital media and fast-growing markets like China, Russia, Brazil and India, up from just over half now.

The commoditization of personal technology will make media content more important. Just as providers of television programming now hold the upper hand over makers of TV sets, the same is likely to happen with smartphones and other gadgets.

For media owners, the opportunities will be enhanced by advances in areas like translation. Forget about the clunky online translations that are currently available, analysts say; within a few years, the Internet will offer simultaneous interpretation of audio and video, making all sorts of media content accessible to new audiences.

English-language media, which have had a head start on globalization, could gain new markets. And for the first time, many non-English publishers, which have struggled to reach beyond national or linguistic borders, could find global audiences.

“Language as a barrier is going to completely evaporate in the next five years,” said Gerd Leonhard, a self-described media futurist in Basel, Switzerland.

Local content — like films, music and books, produced in languages other than English — still has a harder time crossing borders. But even those linguistic and cultural barriers are getting lower. Anyone witnessing the fascination with Japanese singers like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu in Taiwan, or with Korean television series like “Iris” in Japan, might be tempted to think that Asia could be the place where this paradigm breaks down.

Like Hollywood, which has long relied on its ability to win over mass markets across borders, American Internet companies, too, have enjoyed a head start on globalization. But now the Internet is growing more polyglot. A study by the U.N. Broadband Commission last year showed that Chinese-speaking Internet users were on the verge of overtaking their English-speaking counterparts, who used to dominate Internet use, in terms of numbers.

Europe has not had great success in producing border-hopping Internet companies. But some analysts say it could get a new chance in the wake of the disclosure of widespread Internet surveillance by American intelligence officials, which has heightened concerns about digital privacy.

“If you betray trust, you end up with the user saying, ‘Sorry, I’m not going to let you into my mind,”’ Mr. Leonhard said.

If Europe does not step up, perhaps the next Internet giants will come from Asia. Asian companies like Line, WeChat and KakaoTalk, which combine communications and media services for smartphones, have attracted hundreds of millions of users over the past two years, making them a faster-growing phenomena than social media companies like Facebook.

Asia also provides some useful perspective on the evolution of media and technology. Just take an evening stroll through Shibuya, one of the epicenters of Tokyo youth culture. Japanese teenagers are as trend-obsessed as ever; the current must-have accessory is an external battery pack to keep those smartphones running during marathon sessions of chatting or gaming on their phones.

So it might seem bizarre that one of the favorite hangouts in Shibuya is something decidedly old-fashioned — a record store. The flagship branch of Tower Records, a name that disappeared from the American retailing scene in 2006, sprawls across nine floors. At eleven at night, it is a hive of activity.

Clearly, the media revolution could veer off in different directions. Despite digital convergence, it will be marked by diversity.

“You could argue that the future is already here, that the factors that will determine the future are already here,” said Mr. Fenez, at PWC. “We just haven’t seen the full impact. All we can really talk about is the pace and the color of the future in different markets.”

Follow this Twitter page for Alice Daly to get more updates on the media industry.

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