Better broadband: The screenplay

Video rental will drive the next generation of broadband infrastructure

California is the home of fantasies. From the Goldrush to Hollywood by way of dot-com business plans, the state has never been shy of making things up — and it is in the nature of fantasy that sometimes it comes true, with fantastic results.

Steve Jobs is famously the master of reality distortion, and the Macworld 2008 keynote is one of his favourite stages. This year, his audience gasped at the MacBook Air, a fantastically thin, fabulously expensive computer that in reality is a repackaged MacBook with fewer ports and a battery you can't change.

But another fantasy became reality, one that may have far wider repercussions. By achieving three impossible things — getting all the major studios to agree, creating a multimedia interface that your granny could use, and using DRM to support a service with price and restrictions that seem almost fair — Apple has produced a proper video-on-demand rental service for movies. If what was shown on stage is repeated in the home, the service could be truly revolutionary.

Responsiveness is key to the proposition, which is designed around the impulsive choice. On "normal" broadband, promised Jobs, the movie will start to play within 30 seconds of being ordered. The response of most people who've enjoyed what the UK ISP industry sells us as "normal" broadband will, in movie euphemism, contain strong language and sexual references.

Yet if Apple's movie rental system takes hold — and it has that sense of the future about it which marks the best technology products — the onus will be put firmly on the ISPs and backbone providers to make their part of the equation work. And, as high definition takes hold and more services start to adopt the Apple experience as the benchmark of what's acceptable, the commercial impetus will be on the network suppliers to give us proper broadband of hundreds of megabits per second. That can't come too soon.

It wouldn't be the first time Hollywood's dreamers have provided means and motive to change the way things are into the way they should be. We know that our current national broadband systems are limited not by technology but by lack of vision, lack of plot and outdated thinking. Movies at their best can supply the big screen with antidotes to all three: this time, it looks as if they could do the same for IT infrastructure.


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