At last month's Broadband World Forum Asia event, I kept hearing a term that I don't hear nearly enough at conferences: the customer experience. Which is the same as 'user experience', though the latter gets used more to describe mobile content services. I'm not entirely sure why. But no matter what you call it, it means the same thing. Which is that any service you sell a customer had better be easy to use and work right the first time, whether it's an iPhone, a home gateway or a femtocell.
It's especially true when it comes to content-based services. Be it IPTV, mobile TV or streaming internet video, consumers are being offered all sorts of new ways to access all kinds of programming. But it doesn't mean a thing if they have to jump through too many hurdles to get to it. Provided they can find it in the first place.
This point came up in several BBWF sessions. On Day 1, Jeff Miller, president and CEO of ActiveVideo Networks, warned service providers that if they want users to pay for content, they have to follow the old adage of television and give the people what they want. And what's that‾ 'Convenience and their content library easily accessible across devices,' Miller said.
Ming Chow, project management manager of product development and management at PCCW, agreed: 'Although end-users can get free content from the internet via applications like BitTorrent, they will pay for the content if a service provider can provide them with ease-of-use and a good user experience.'
The same point was made at a later session on P2P by Horace Lau, Apac area solutions architect for PeerApp. 'People use P2P for illegal downloads because when they go to the legal provider to get content, it's not there. If content providers make their content more easily available and easy to find and download, people will pay for that.'
Are you getting all of this‾
The problem, as usual, is that the content value chain is not designed for ease of access - not by the standards of the average user, anyway. Whether you're interfacing through a PC, an iPhone or a set-top box, the value proposition for accessing content should be as simple as typing keywords into a search engine - title, artist, actor, director, lyrics, whatever - and clicking through to the content, with perhaps a synopsis page and a confirm button between you and the content you're after.
But we're not there yet, and the reason, as usual, is because the content licensing value chain isn't designed for it. Content owners still insist on locking down content with limitations that may or may not prevent piracy, but almost certainly make their content harder to get.
Take Hulu, the website started by NBC Universal and News Corp that offers free TV shows from the NBC and Fox TV networks, as well as full-length movies. You can even embed clips YouTube style on your blog. Just one problem: your computer has to be physically in the US to watch any of it, even the clips embedded on blogs you can otherwise read.
Or take Dr Horrible's Sing-along Blog, a new straight-to-web science-fiction musical series from Joss Whedon, creator of cult TV favorites like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly.
Call that ease of use‾ Cos I don't.
To be fair, these limitations aren't the fault of service providers. They're partly the product of the highly complex royalty schemes that major media companies live by. But it's also why people upload copyrighted clips on YouTube and similar sites - many of them from sources that haven't even been re-released on DVD yet, and plenty of which aren't available for sale in other regions. That in itself is an interesting signpost of the 21st century - the customers not only know what content they want, they can deliver it to the rest of the internet faster than the actual content owners.