Canada Has Its Own Digital Media Woes (Like 2GB Monthly Caps on Basic Home Internet)

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I had the opportunity last week to attend Canada 3.0 in Stratford, Ontario, a gathering billed as Canada’s premier digital media conference. It seemed a no-brainer: only an hour drive (and to my home town no less), smack in the backyards of Canadian technology giants Research in Motion (RIM) and OpenText, a focus on digital media with representation from academia, government, media and private enterprise, all taking place in a city that progressed from a railway hub to being an international Shakespearean theater mecca to becoming an emerging digital hub (complete with city wide high-speed wireless network, an underlying fiber optic grid and recognition as a global ‘Top 7″ city by the Intelligent Community Forum). Count me in.

Kevin Newman, a former Canadian news anchor turned digital media strategistKevin Newman, a former Canadian news anchor turned digital media strategist

Former Global TV Anchor and digital strategy advisor Kevin Newman addresses Canada 3.0 (photo by Brad Moon)

Let’s start with the wicked network connectivity that was a big part of that ICF nod first and get that out of the way. Day one and there was no WiFi. Not slow WiFi, mind you, or congested WiFi. No WiFi. There was a fair bit of scrambling around and equipment failure got the blame. A number of media were taking up posts beside Motorola boosters spotted outside, but that didn’t help. And it was raining on and off, making any ventures outdoors in search of connectivity a gadget hazard. To make things even more interesting, cell reception was atrocious in many of the rooms — the media center in particular was built like a concrete bunker and had zero signal. I was openly wondering if someone had deployed a jammer somewhere in the vicinity. It was bad enough being cut off from e-mail, but tweeters were not having a good time of it. Day two, the WiFi was still AWOL. I’m not sure how bad this equipment failure was, but I would expect that any box that dies should be swappable within hours (if not minutes) and leaving a national digital media conference without connectivity for its duration wasn’t entirely on-message. To be fair, there were options. Ethernet was quickly strung into the media center but that did me no good with the no-Ethernet port MacBook Air I was carrying. Yes, I could have brought the dongle, but when attending a digital media conference at a city internationally recognized for being literally bursting with high-speed WiFi goodness, that was the last thing I thought of packing. Besides, every other person was toting an iPad and they were SOL as well, Ethernet or no Ethernet. When touring the exhibition area, I came across Kadie and the intrepid team from LEDC webcasting as though nothing was wrong. Turns out they were in an area where a cell signal was available and thanks to the foresight of packing USB 3G modems, they were able to keep going. Always pays to be prepared…

Connectivity issues aside, what was the point of Canada 3.0 and what was it like? Well, the point can be summed up from the conference promo: “Learn how Canada stacks up against the world. How far we have come. And how far we have to go.” There were multiple streams taking place, including eHealth, Education, Telecommunications & Distribution, Natural Resources and Media & Entertainment. In addition, The Road to Banff venture capital pitch-off contest was being held (sort of a Dragon’s Den for digital media and tech companies seeking financing), there were several keynotes, a well-attended student program was offered and there were product exhibitions. I was primarily interested in Media and Entertainment, so those were the sessions I caught.

Canada seems to have an uneasy relationship with digital media. In some ways we lead the world when it comes to the Internet, digital media and related technology. For example, Canadians consume more YouTube video per capita than any other nation, visit Wikipedia more than surfers from anywhere else in the world, we* were early adopters of Facebook and Twitter and Canadians spend more time online per month (over 41 hours) than anyone else in the world. We’re the home of Research in Motion and RIM’s BlackBerry was once the smart phone of choice for businesses world wide. But something has happened in recent years and I noticed evidence of this all through the conference. Canada seems to be stumbling a bit in the digital world.

Remember RIM? The company is headquartered only a thirty minute drive from where Canada 3.0 was being held. Many of the companies and media represented at the conference were RIM neighbors, but I never saw a single PlayBook in my entire time there. Several were being given away as door prizes, but the ‘hometown’ tablet was keeping a low profile, at least around me. On the other hand, I’ve never before seen such a concentration of iPads being brandished at an event, including an impressive number of iPad 2s, obvious from their Smart Covers. Given that Apple only saw fit to offer the latest iPads through Canadian stores a few weeks ago, this display was something. And the iPad was repeatedly held up (literally) during presentations, both as the disruptive technology that caught everyone there by surprise last year and as some sort of Holy Grail for the future of digital media. This attitude worries me a little, and I’m known as someone who likes his Apple products. Hearing the CBC (Canada’s national broadcaster) announce that it has just completed the first Canadian study of iPad owners and discovered that users like to play games, surf the web, watch video and read e-books on their iPads, I couldn’t help but cringe. I hope no-one was waiting for the results of this study because this data has been available in the US market for the better part of a year and it should hardly be shocking to anyone who’s used an iPad or watched someone use an iPad. But Canadians can be cautious, so here we are, 13 months after the iPad dropped and we can officially say that we know what Canadians have been doing with theirs. Who knows what they’ll be up to with their iPad 2s, though…

There was a great deal of talk about optimizing content for the iPad: optimizing video, optimizing print, hand wringing about how to deliver the best iPad experience. I do think that digital media is the future, but it has been for some time now. I’ve been wirelessly delivering movies and TV shows to the televisions, iPods and computer screens throughout our house for five years. Adding iPads into the mix is just another screen displaying the same bits. And it’s great. But there’s no need for broadcasters or content providers to re-work their digital libraries to include some sort of iPad specific wow factor. Like many people, when I first bought an iPad, I immediately loaded up a few spectacular multimedia showpiece apps. They were awesome, but used primarily to show off what the new tablet could do. Generic digital content, the kind that should be in a format that allows it to be accessed through a wide range of devices, is the mainstay now. Spending months or years working on a masterpiece that turns an e-book into a multimedia showcase for the iPad is going to net some customers for the wow factor, but soon the hardware will be capable of much more, porting this content to other devices or platforms will be time consuming and people aren’t going to pay a premium to have every bit of digital media tarted up. It’s almost reached the point of development paralysis: are we waiting for the interactive, media rich content to be produced, waiting for the sales team to figure out if people will actually pay for the extra goodies, or holding off altogether for fear the next round of hardware in six months is going to take things in a new direction? I’d like to hear that people are just getting on with it. Mind you, this iPad obsession hardly seems limited to Canada. I understand even Conde Nast has spent a few cycles working on it.

I don’t think for a second that the iPad is in trouble, but I do think that even though Apple got off to an early start and dominated the initial tablet market, it’s a mistake to plan for the future based on the equation of “tablet = iPad.” The Android Market is going gangbusters and is poised to eclipse Apple’s App Store in terms of total number of apps offered. That will probably happen this year. With PlayBook, Galaxy Tab, an Amazon tablet and whatever else is coming down the pipes, Apple will be sharing the market sooner rather than later. Rather than over thinking how to make every bit of content pop on a iPad, I’d like to see a focus on making sure that any media created going forward is available digitally and that it’s available wherever I want it, whenever I want it on whatever device I happen to choose at the moment — TV, tablet, smart phone, game console or whatever.

Back to Canada and its uneasy relationship with digital media. The stats say we’re huge consumers of digital media. In the US market, Comcast has a 250GB monthly data cap and AT&T is coming under fire for recently introducing a 150GB cap on basic users. In Canada, where we’re spending more time online, spending more time watching YouTube videos and embracing Netflix, we are coping with ISPs and consumer data caps that are laughable in comparison. Rogers, our largest ISP, offers users of its basic Internet service a 2GB monthly data cap. No, I didn’t leave off a zero or two, that’s two Gigabytes of data per month. Moving up four notches and to the $60/month plan nets you 80GB per month. The biggest plan offered, at $100/month gives 175GB of data with additional usage charged at $0.50 per GB. Try to figure out how we balance our love of the Internet and digital media (with data intensive media like movies increasingly being delivered over the Internet) and data caps that top out below the basic offering of some US ISPs and you can see a bit of that uncertainty. Netflix has already had to introduce heavy compression as the default setting for Canadian customers to prevent the backlash when people use up a month’s data allotment in one night of watching Gilligan’s Island reruns. The digital future may see Canada left behind if we don’t do something.

Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist and known to Wired readers as “The Explainer,” delivered a very entertaining keynote on the effect of social media on society. His exploration of the evolution of the terms “whatever” and “meh” was a welcome intro to the event. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed in to see the Road to Banff pitch (something about companies revealing their top secret plans and not wanting the media around to blab their intentions); there was a wrap-up that was open to media, but I wasn’t able to stick around that long. While some (although not all) of the Media & Entertainment conference panelists and presenters struck me as being stuck in a bit of a rut and overly fixated on all things iPad, the Road to Banff competitors wandering around the facility, the 400 or so students and many of the exhibitors gave me more hope. This is where bewilderment, second guessing and tentativeness was replaced by enthusiasm, forward thinking and action. Companies like Powernoodle** that’s tackling the challenge of collaboration through software that includes elements of gamification such as the use of avatars and points. Another company, Pressly, is focused on that iPad thing, but they’ve taken the approach of creating a tool that simplifies content layout for publishers —making a play at being something like a PageMaker for iPad. Watching and listening to the students who were everywhere, tweeting, snapping photos, talking up vendors and interviewing attendees for media classes, I came away thinking that even if Canada might be risking a short term stumble when it comes to digital media, conferences like Canada 3.0 are at least providing the opportunities and the inspiration to do something about it in the long term.

* I say “we,” although that does not include me. Everyone gets to be stubborn about something and Facebook and Twitter remain on my “not enough time in the day to do it right” category. Although I never say never.
**Disclosure: I do not work for Powernoodle; however, I have provided consulting services for the company.

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