2007 Tech Trends No. 10: Wi-Fi personal media players

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Everything’s connected nowadays. Every gadget hooks up to your PC or Mac, you can connect digital cameras and mobile phones to your telly, and webcams work with your PS3 console. But what about wireless connectivity? I’ve already talked about Bluetooth music in this Tech Trends series, but Wi-Fi MP3 players are another important trend.

Actually, it’s broader than that – we should really talk about personal media players (PMPs) when referring to the devices that are getting Wi-Fi’d up, as it’s as much about video and photos as it is music.

Whatever you call them, though, the trend is clear: our PMPs are increasingly shipping with connectivity that goes beyond the traditional USB cable. Over the next six months, we’ll see how this affects how we discover and consume content, as well as sharing it with each other.

Wi-Fi PMPs aren’t, as such, a brand new idea, as anyone with an Archos 704, Sansa Connect or Microsoft Zune will tell you.

However, the fact that Wi-Fi could soon become a standard feature in these devices is shown by Archos’ recent Generation 5 launch, where wireless connectivity was a key feature in all three of the firm’s new PMPs, while it’s also a big part of iRiver’s new PMPs like the W10 and even its new Mickey Mouse player.

So, Wi-Fi is going to be in more PMPs in the months ahead, but what will we use it for? Two things jump out: getting music and video onto the devices (or streaming it to them), and sharing this content with other users.

The former is fairly straightforward, since Wi-Fi in a PMP allows it to theoretically connect to music or media stores when you’re in range of a network and download stuff. It’ll need the billing mechanism to be worked out beforehand (for example, a subscription to a music service like Rhapsody or Slacker). It’s not a stretch to imagine a Wi-Fi iPod that connects to iTunes either.

But it’s the sharing aspect of Wi-Fi that’s most intriguing, particularly at a time when the music and movie industries are grappling with issues around DRM and file-sharing – on the one hand, a past-time for dirty rotten pirates, but on the other a huge opportunity to spread content without spending loads of money on marketing.

I’ve ranted here before about how Microsoft should pay Zune users to share music with each other, and it seems that the company’s thoughts are veering in that direction.

The next six months should see the first tentative attempts at making device-to-device file-sharing a reality, without enraging the record labels, broadcasters and movie studios. There’s plenty of questions around how it would work (see below), but for the early adopters who’ll be snapping up Wi-Fi PMPs as they come out, it’ll be an exciting time.

THE BIG QUESTIONS

1. Once they put Wi-Fi in their PMPs, will manufacturers resist the temptation to shoehorn in all manner of features that users don’t really want? It’s debatable how useful VoIP, internet browsing or instant messaging would be on a PMP, for example.

2. At a time when music etailers are moving towards selling DRM-free songs, how can they then make it possible for PMP owners to share them with each other AND ensure the content rights owners get paid?

3. What does putting Wi-Fi in a PMP do to the battery life, and will users accept the trade-off?

THE FULL TECH TRENDS LIST
1: Telly 2.0
2: Green Gadgets
3: Blu-ray and HD DVD convergence
4: Virtual Reality
5: Touchscreens
6: Mobile social networking
7: Lifecasting
8: Bluetooth music
9: DRM-free music
10: Wi-Fi personal media players

Stuart Dredge