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Coming: television’s iPod moment

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Vinton Cerf, vice-president of Google, at a press conference in Bangalore.
Vinton Cerf, vice-president of Google, at a press conference in Bangalore.

Bobbie Johnson

Godfather of the Net predicts the end of TV as we know it.

Thirty years ago he helped create a technology that has revolutionised life around the world. But on Sunday the man known as the “Godfather of the Net” laid out his vision of where humankind’s online future might be, including a time when we may download entire TV series in seconds — and even surf the Web from Mars.

Talking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Vinton Cerf — one of the handful of researchers who helped build the Internet in the 1970s — said the television industry would change rapidly as it approached its “iPod moment.”

The 64-year-old, who is now a vice-president of the Web giant Google and chairman of the organisation that administers the Internet, told an audience of media moguls that TV was rapidly approaching the same kind of crunch moment that the music industry faced with the arrival of the MP3 player.

“Eighty-five per cent of all video we watch is pre-recorded, so you can set your system to download it all the time,” he said. “You’re still going to need live television for certain things — like news, sporting events, and emergencies — but increasingly it is going to be almost like the iPod, where you download content to look at later.”

Dr. Cerf, who helped build the Internet while working as a researcher at Stanford University in California, used the festival’s Alternative McTaggart Lecture to explain to television executives how the Internet’s influence was radically altering their businesses and how it was imperative for them to view this as a golden opportunity to be exploited instead of as a threat to their survival. The arrival of Internet television has long been predicted, although it has succeeded in limited ways so far. But the popularity of websites such as YouTube — the video sharing service bought by Google in 2005 for $1.65 billion — has encouraged many in the TV industry to try and use the Internet more profitably.

Last month the BBC launched its free iPlayer download service, and digital video recorders such as Sky Plus and Freeview Playback allow viewers to instantly pause and record live television.

Dr. Cerf predicted that these developments would continue, and that people would soon be watching the majority of television programmes through the Internet. And that revolution could herald the death of the traditional broadcast TV channel in favour of new interactive services.

“In Japan you can already download an hour’s worth of video in 16 seconds,” he said. “And we’re starting to see ways of mixing information together... imagine if you could pause a TV programme and use your mouse to click on different items on the screen and find out more about them.”

A warning

Some critics, including a number of leading Internet service providers, have warned that the increase in video on the Web could eventually bring down the Internet. They are concerned that millions of people downloading material at the same time using services such as iPlayer could overwhelm the network.

Dr. Cerf rejected such claims as “scare tactics.” He said: “It’s an understandable worry when they see huge amounts of information being moved around online.” But some pundits had predicted 20 years ago that the Net would collapse when people started using it en masse, he added. “In the intervening 30 years it’s increased a million times over... We’re far from exhausting the capacity.”

Dr. Cerf said he has been working on future developments for the Internet, taking it beyond the confines of the earth. With other researchers he has been developing systems to use the Net to communicate and control space vehicles, including interplanetary landers sent to explore Mars.

“Up until now we’ve been using the so-called Deep Space Network to communicate across space with radio signals. What my colleagues and I would like to do is use a version of Internet,” he said. He said the problems encountered by the project — such as having to wait for 40 minutes for a response from a space vehicle 235 million miles away — were proving awkward. But he predicted that the system could eventually be used to enhance Internet communications.

“I want more Internet,” he said. “I want every one of the six billion people on the planet to be able to connect to the Internet. I think they will add things to it that will really benefit us all.” — ©Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2007


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