For Tech's Sake: Price of the delivering the picture is only part of the emerging video equation
- By Gary Arlen
- Dec 18, 2003
At this month's Government Video Expo in Washington, at least a half-dozen exhibitors were videocassette and CD duplicators/replicators.
How quaintly 20th century, I thought ? reflecting on the latest reports that electronics manufacturers and retailers are curtailing or altogether abandoning VHS equipment, and that CD distribution is also down.
True, most of the Expo's duplication companies also crank out DVDs, which is a bit more up to date. Nonetheless, hanging onto the legacy of tangible tape and disk products seemed an archaic anomaly amid the trade show's far greater array of tools, systems and services for Internet-transmitted Web casts, streaming video and digital downloading.
Certainly, the online digital video offerings can be more easily integrated into the government's IT-based applications. Since much of the government's use of video is for training and instruction, videotape, CD-ROM and DVD products carry the burden of being stuck in time.
As soon as a production is completed, copied and shipped out, the lessons or messages are locked in place. Physical products cannot be updated or refreshed as easily as a streaming Web site. Plus, there's the cost of packaging and shipping those tapes and disks. Albeit a pittance ? typically under a buck a copy plus postage ? the costs mount up.
What about security? Those videos can fall into the wrong hands or be seen by unauthorized eyes. And we haven't even gotten to the environmental burden of all that plastic.
"We've been predicting the death of VHS for more than a decade," said Bob Diamond of Action Duplication in West Conshohocken, Pa.
Yet Diamond and other replicators and duplicators (usually the same companies, reflecting a slight nuance in how the multiple copies are actually manufactured) were a happy lot. They seemed confident that their products have a long future even as Web-based training, Internet videoconferencing and wireless broadband video ? most of those other exhibitors in the Washington Convention Center that day ? expand throughout government applications.
Users' easy access to and familiarity with legacy video equipment is one reason for the persistence of videocassettes and the introduction of DVDs, said Mike Weiss of VideoLabs, a Rockville, Md., duplicator. "It's fueled by agencies that have hardware investments in VHS," he said.
Weiss, Diamond and their replicating brethren noted that the new wave of video products reaches out to the Internet in a variety of ways. They acknowledged that DVDs, and especially the emerging technology of DVD-ROMs, will offer converging vehicles for offline and online content.
Citing a DVD disk that his company is producing for the National Library of Medicine, Adam Kranitz of Henninger Media Services, Arlington, Va., focused on the project's plentiful connections to the library's Web site. The links enhance and update the extensive video on the disk itself, he said.
"Sophisticated users are finding they can put lots of info on the disk and [enhance] it with links to network-based content," Kranitz says.
A Maryland developer of government training video programs underscored the transition by pointing out that the General Accounting Office's Web server has frequently been overloaded by demand for video content.
The contractor, who requested anonymity, predicted that as more agencies implement distance learning, especially programs combining data and video components, personnel will "take home" the courseware. This raises further problems for Internet-based delivery, such as underequipped homes. Hence, the converged prospect of online and offline combos becomes a likely scenario, much to the pleasure of the disk duplicators.
Moreover, America's geographic challenge across time zones poses problems for real-time online training courses. While Internet delivery, especially streaming services, may win in time-sensitive situations, tapes and disks work well ? or at least well enough ? for routine training activities.
Despite the belief in their own survival, the vendors of tangible software face a puzzling future. Of course, their multimedia products are easily accessible and can reach into field offices and remote venues where broadband delivery does not yet reach or cannot be easily applied. But developers of authoring tools, such as Interactive Video Technologies, New York, contend that the overwhelming majority of their business comes from Web-based providers.
Mark Lieberman, chairman of IVT, called it "a transitioning issue."
"It's less about the technology than it is about the behavioral pattern of the people using it," he said. "People are just getting used to demo-ing on CDs." Like his Internet-focused colleagues, Lieberman expected a continuing shift toward network-based applications.
Amid this face-off, I asked whether anyone is measuring the effectiveness of tangible versus Internet videos. Is there a metric for gauging the value of each alternative: a cost-per-presentation or a benchmark of how users retain or understand material seen in the various formats?
Nope, not yet. Although both sides offered anecdotal examples, no one could come up with a solid example to calculate the comparative effectiveness of tape/disk-based programs versus online offerings. Each side recognized the strengths of its competitors: For example, Cabinet-level briefings that require immediate distribution are understandably migrating to the real-time Internet. Content that requires very high-grade visual accuracy ? such as medical or scientific presentations ? are still leaning toward CD or DVD distribution until the assured video performance is an Internet guarantee.
"There's no good way to delivery high-resolution video content via the Web right now," Henninger's Kranitz said.
As we move deeper into the era of visual literacy, the role of video on the desktop and palmtop becomes more essential. A growing generation of personnel expects video integrated into appropriate tasks. Savvy IT managers are devising systems and content that bring such capabilities into training, research, collaborative and other functions.
But as the Government Video Expo unexpectedly spotlighted, there's still life in those old 20th century tangible technologies.
Understandably, some of the replicators are seeking to expand their skills, moving into fulfillment and customer service. Some are even going into video production ? to supplement their manufacturing bases.
Their biggest challenge remains proving that pressed plastic represents the way their government customers prefer to see video. Their biggest opportunity, for now, is developing converged products that blend Internet delivery into the digital package.
Stay tuned. The data video face-off is just getting under way.
Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda, Md., research firm. His e-mail address is GaryArlen@columnist.com