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The Land of the Free...For Now

January 2010

By Quentin Clarke, London

2009 wasn’t a great year to launch new products in the UK and uptake of what’s been around for a few years continues to be slow. I still don’t know anyone with Blu-ray or who watches HDTV. People are skeptical about new hardware - we’ve seen so much come and go. Most of us still have a box of cherished VHSs we’ll never view again. Nonetheless, the landscape is changing faster than ever and the one piece of hardware that seems to be driving this is the multi-use iPhone. World famous 71-year old painter David Hockney even creates art with his.

The iPhone’s applications have changed the life of TV producer Fiona Inskip, who on her journey back from a location edits on Final Cut Pro and Photoshops images to the look she wants. "I can be creative on the go!" she exclaims, celebrating with a blast on her Harmonica application. But she worries that once she’s hooked, charges will creep in.

She uses Spotify to choose music for her programs. It’s a subscription music service, but if like her you’re invited to join by a paid-up member, you can create your own playlists and browse the music catalog for free. Although there are commercials.

A paying app that has revolutionized Fiona’s journey home is Jamie Oliver’s 20 Minute Meals - essentially an interactive cookbook for commuters. She can select a recipe, watch videos of its preparation and download a shopping list of ingredients to delete as she navigates the supermarket. It even adjusts amounts according to how many she’s cooking for.

TV on-demand enables broadband users to stream the previous month’s TV over the internet, meaning the only programming worth watching in real time is reality or talent contests. The BBC’s iPlayer application started this: now every major channel has its own free online player application. Owners of TV sets in the UK are legally obliged to pay the license fee - a flat-rate BBC tax - but watching on the laptop avoids this. For true telly addicts, a PVR remains essential - you’re unable to forward through adverts on the commercial channel players, and the laptop picture quality is undeniably inferior. But frugal or aesthetically-minded friends have dispensed with TV sets altogether.

The BBC’s hot-off-the-press plans for a new set-top product is Project Canvas, which they say will make using computer functions on the TV set much easier. It will be interesting to see whether the television set remains relevant. Men might miss that 42 inch flatscreen dominating their living space.

Another interesting online access service is the Tate Museum’s Art on Demand, where you can browse and order bespoke prints of works from the Tate collection, including different framing options.

Facebook may have plateaued. I no longer see it in the office, nor am I routinely asked if I’m on it. I’m tired of reading what color the usual suspects are wearing today, or their game scores. I’ve never met anyone sufficiently egotistical to tweet.

The worry is that all the free stuff won’t last forever: if iPhone apps monopolize, if political pressure to commercialize the BBC paves the way to pay-per-view TV, with News International muttering about making users pay for online news. For now, while technology’s changing almost daily, yet no one has any money, the corporations jostle for subscriptions and our continued attention.


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