Don't get carried away with portable war games

Microsoft's getting bullish about personal video but old ideas won't build new markets

Come spring, a young man's fancies lightly turn to thoughts of love. Unless he works in a consumer electronics marketing department, when he fixates firmly on Christmas. I'm sorry to bring up the C word while the credit cards are still painfully deflating from our last festival of personal debt, but in my defence I can only say that Microsoft made me do it. Its Portable Media Centre will be "one of the hot devices for Christmas 2004", according to product manager James Bernard: never mind that we've only seen cranky prototypes at trade fairs, the PMC will carry all before it. Especially that pesky iPod.

There's no reason to believe Microsoft, of course. It has a fine track record for introducing consumer devices that miss the mark, from the MSX home-computer series to the Smart Display, and while there's certainly an amount of Buck Rogers gee-whizzery in having a video player in your pocket it's got a lot of history stacked against it. People buy pocket radios and music players: they don't buy pocket televisions. People listen to the same music many more times than they watch the same TV programme. Music meshes beautifully with any number of daily activities, but watching the box means you can't do anything else.

That's assuming you can make a video device that's as portable as an MP3 player. You can't. You need fast processing feeding a bright, colourful screen that's big enough to watch, and that's entirely additional to everything an audio-only device has to handle. Your batteries need to be bigger and they'll run out faster; the case needs to be bigger too. Neither is acceptable. Microsoft's CE devices were -- and still are, to some extent -- less desirable than the Palm PDAs for exactly this reason: you can't beat a well-designed, focussed device by adding lots of unhelpful features that compromise the essence of its attraction.

The iPod isn't perfect. Its user interface is fine for selecting and playing songs, but for anything else you need your computer. As soon as you're using it to anything like its full potential, you're severely limited away from home -- if the iPod's in your pocket, you can't find out what a song is, bookmark it, decide you want to hear two or three more from the same album and then move on. The device is no cleverer than a CD player, and unless you want to keep hoicking it out of its hiding place, you'll end up using it like a radio station.

This isn't helped by Apple's instinctive urge to keep the system closed. I've never quite worked out why Apple fans give the company such an easy time over this: Think Different so often turns out to be Think High Prices And Limited Choice Due To Controlled Intellectual Property -- a tune that we've heard elsewhere. With the iPod, we could have had a variety of cool remote controls, voice software, playlist manipulation add-ons and other life-affirming, market-growing fun, if Apple had opened up a few interfaces. Minidiscs have had scrolling LCD remote controls for years: the iPod is a step back. And imagine the fun if the little darling spoke Java.

None of which will stop Microsoft's mistakes biting them in some tender but already well-chewed places.

The fact that the iPod doesn't play video is no more a failing than the fact that David Beckham can't play Hamlet. With the iPod Mini, Apple has underlined the validity of its vision: you can make a device that costs a lot and relies on a sophisticated market that's already made big investments in fast computers and massive CD collections. Make it small and last a day, and it does the job. Make it beautiful, and it'll sell itself. Personal Media Centres will fail on all counts.

Personal video isn't entirely silly, though. You may well have a spare 10 minutes at lunch, half an hour on the train or a few moments to kill while waiting for a pal to show in the Dog and Duck, and if you've got a couple of sitcoms grabbed from last night's telly in your pocket what could be nicer than catching up? If you've got to lug around some battery-guzzling brick, this won't happen. We'll only get happy with personal video when it comes with iPod sensibilities.

But hold on: you've already got a half-decent display with its own power source -- there's a smartphone in your pocket and you're very pleased to see it. If your personal media centre could only connect, it could be as small as an iPod Mini -- smaller even, since it wouldn't need much of a user interface onboard. Bluetooth? Too slow. 802.11? Too power-hungry, and too fiddly. Ultrawideband? Perfect: low power, low range, high speed wireless connectivity.

That's the raw technology. You'll also need open hardware and software specifications, so the phone makers can play without rancour. A device with all that would work as well at home as in the pocket, could play well with a huge number of future toys and wouldn't break any of the iPod aesthetic commandments. For this to happen, though, companies such as MS and Apple will have to break out of the proprietary prison and the ultrawideband tribes will have to lay down their arms. If they don't do this, there won't be a market: if they do this, it'll be a happy Christmas for years to come.