This will be the year when everyone realises that our industry (and, for that matter, every industry - but especially ours) is on an incredible journey. It's as if you only have to wait a year or so for your wildest technology dreams and fantasies to come true
The white heat* of the revolution that we're currently in really will change everything. It's already started. But the current is getting faster and if we don't take drastic measures, we'll get swept away.
Does that sound alarmist? Of course it does. But if you're not prepared to think about it, you definitely should be alarmed. The world is changing and it will keep changing, until we can't ignore it.
What can we do about it? We can try to understand it. We can look for and anticipate the changes. What is a threat for someone that doesn't "get it" is an opportunity for someone else that does.
I do hope that everyone "gets it" because this is the best chance we'll ever have to benefit from the biggest changes the world has ever seen. If we get it right, it will be a wonderful thing for everyone. If we get it wrong, well, at the very least it will be the biggest missed opportunity in history
A computer in your pocket
A computer in your pocket? Yes. It's what we used to quaintly call a telephone. There's just room for that and - wait for it - a cinema quality video camera as well (minus the lens). Driverless cars? They're just around the corner, probably parking themselves in a tight spot and making a better job of it than you ever could.
Do you remember years ago - actually only about five years back - when it was easy to predict, say, three years into the future? Not any more. Would anyone care to tell me what new consumer electronic products will be released in a year? I reckon we're on about nine months now, and the timeframe is getting shorter all the time.
And it's not just the familiar Moore's law that's at play here. With social media, an idea can traverse the globe in seconds. And the end point of an electronic idea is no longer someone's desktop computer but their phone, or, tomorrow, perhaps, their wristwatch - or even their retina.
Products can live or die by the merest whiff of information, whether it turns out to be right or wrong.
Ever since it started, RedShark has been talking about this stuff, but years before RedShark, I've been fascinated by the way that technology changes. For people like me, it's intriguing and exciting. For some people, it's somewhere between boring and terrifying. Some people love change. Others can't cope with it.
I'm old enough to remember when the pinnacle of technological achievement was a valve radiogram. And pretty clever it was too. It was everything you could want in home entertainment all crammed into something the size of a sideboard.
When you looked inside these things, as I did, often, they were pretty dusty, but there was the unmissable glow of five or six valves (tubes), some chunky capacitors and resistors, and - here's precision for you - the variable capacitor for tuning the AM was coupled to the tuning dial with a piece of stretchy string. All the interconnecting wires were like hose pipes by today's standards, and you could solder them with your eyes closed.
One of today's smartphones would have looked like an alien artifact next to one of those radiograms. There would have been absolutely no way to know how it worked or even what it was. It would just have been a piece of plastic with some miniature bits inside that could have been anything. We certainly wouldn't have known that, with it, anyone could make a video and have it visible to the entire world within a few minutes: still less that it would have been in high definition - or even 4K in the case of the Galaxy Note 3.
We've been on this exponential path for centuries, but so long ago, the curve would have been indistinguishable from a straight line: a horizontal one. It's only as we moved into the 20th century that an upwards slope would have been visible, but initially, from most people's perspective, it would still have been a straight line which would mean that you'd get the same amount of progress in a year in ten year's time as you would this year.
We now know that's wrong. We're at the stage where we can see the change in the slope. But not for long, because soon, from our viewpoint, it will be vertical. And then, things will start happening that we weren't expecting. They'll just come out of nowhere.
Does that sound implausible? Impossible, even? It's not, because it's already happening.
Just Look at the original Blackmagic Cinema Camera. That was an utter surprise. When it was launched, it wasn't like any other product launch, where a manufacturer merely surprised everyone with a new product. This was a company that was famous for making I/O cards. No-one, and I mean no-one, was expecting them to make a camera. This camera launch astonished everyone - customers and competitors alike (as they actually discovered that they were competitors!). I doubt if there would have been more surprise if Blackmagic had announced that they'd built a moon rocket.
With 20/20 hindsight, it's still not obvious, but it's less incredible (in the sense that you can see how and why they did it). They had all the antecedents in place, but no-one outside of Blackmagic added it all up and came to the right answer.
Let's have a look at what they did.
A surprising investment
There were two things they needed to make a raw camera, excluding the sensor. First, they needed to be able to process video in real time. They had studio recorders that could capture HD video as ProRes, and they also had the Hyperdeck Shuttle, which they surprised everyone with at the previous NAB. This was a battery powered HD video recorder that captured video through HDMI or SDI and converted it to ProRes, which it stored on SSD modules. (The earlier versions could not record to ProRes - only to uncompressed video). To design this must have taken a lot of work and it was, looking back on it, a surprising investment given the low price of the unit and that they must have had to sell an awful lot of them to get a Return On Investment (just speculating here).
A year or so before that, Blackmagic surprised everyone again by buying Davinci and their colour correction software Resolve. Again, this was not an obvious move for a company so focused on hardware. One of Resolve's strengths is that it is very happy to accept a wide range of video formats.
What do you need to make a raw camera? You need something exactly like the Hyperdeck Shuttle that's portable and battery powered. And then you need software to process the raw images so that we can see them in all their luscious glory.
Without wishing to diminish the business and technical cleverness that Blackmagic put into making their first camera, this was only possible because of the rate of progress. If they'd had to design (as opposed to configure) their own operating system, sensor, codec, processor, screen and memory system, well, the product would have never appeared. As the level of integration gets higher, the surprises will get bigger.
This is absolutely vital
Let's step back a minute and take a wider view of what's happening here with some background. Although this might seem pretty theoretical - it's probably going to be pretty familiar to you as well. Say with us - this next section is absolutely vital to explain what's going to happen in our industry.
In the last quarter of the last century, a theory based around marketing high tech products was put forward by Everett Rogers, a specialist in communication and sociology. It's become known colloquially as the "Bell Curve Theory" - a reference to a graph very familiar to statisticians and market researchers. What it means is that products start slowly, build up their adoption levels quickly, enjoy a period of popularity and then go into a period of decline that's approximately symmetrical with the first part of the graph. What Rogers did was segment the bell curve and make plausible explanations as to who and what was driving each part.
The first part - at the start of the slope - was for "Visionaries". These are people (probably like me, to some extent) who will buy a product because it's new and exciting and not necessarily because it works. They don't care. They just want it in itself and for itself. Then, you have the only slightly more sensible "Early Adopters". These purchasers are - and want to be - ahead of the curve. They probably present themselves to others as being "on the pace" and like the idea that they always have the latest kit.
Now we're into the bulk of the first part of the curve. This is reserved for the "Early Mass Market". As Geoffrey Moore (No relation to Gordon Moore, the Intel CEO and architect of Moore's Law) explained in his book "Crossing the Chasm", to get to the Early Mass Market is extremely difficult because the Early Mass Market customers are differently motivated to the Early Adopters. What they want to see is the product in use, and successfully so. They insist on seeing positive user reports before they'll commit. The difficulty is that the Early Mass Market won't happen until there is - wait for it - a mass market. Customers in this category simply won't buy until they've seen enough other people buying as well. By definition, this is not something that bothers Early Adopters and Visionaries, but there aren't enough of them to constitute a mass market.
This is the "Chasm" that has to be crossed, and you'll have to read Geoffrey Moore's book to see how to do that, except that you'll see in a minute, that's old advice. Something has happened recently to supersede it. What's happened is the "Big Bang".
If that sounds apocalyptic; well, it is.
While Moore's advice has helped countless technology start-ups gain traction and go on to longer-term success, this model has suddenly become outdated. The one that's replaced it is either thrilling or terrifying, depending on your perspective. Fittingly for this online publication, the bell curve has been replaced by a shark's fin.
In fact, the shark's fin (whose colour in immaterial) is part of a longer cycle that is described in detail in the new book: Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation by Larry Downes and Paul Nunes.
Briefly, here's what the book describes.
There are now four stages in the innovation cycle. Downes and Nunes have used an analogy with modern cosmology and have named them: The Singularity, The Big Bang, The Big Crunch and Entropy. Here's what they mean:
The Singularity is what was around before the Big Bang. Nothing much, in other words. In terms of innovation it's where you see all sorts of attempts to invent and bring new products to the market. Most of them fail, and you never hear anything about them - so they disappear back into the dark void.
The Big Bang is the very sharp front edge of the Shark Fin (we don't have permission to reproduce the diagram here but just look at RedShark's logo, but reversed horizontally!). With Big Bang disruption a product takes off almost immediately. There's no waiting around for peer recommendation or for the Visionary and Early Adopter's stages.
Sudden take off
Why do things take off so suddenly?
It's a combination of things. For a start, as we saw here it's now possible to build new products in a fraction of the time, for a minuscule cost compared to just a few years ago. A decade or less ago, if you wanted to build, say, a camera, you'd have had to design pretty much all of it yourself, from the sensor, to the operating system, to the digital signal processing. It would have been a very big job and only companies like Sony, Panasonic, JVC and other industry giants would have had the resources and the financial might to do it.
But now, if you want to buy a sensor, you can just do a Google Search and around four results after the paid-for ones, you'll find a company that can supply a cinema-quality 4K sensors for you to use in your own camera. You'll need an FPGA (check out Xilinx and Altera) and someone to design and manufacture the circuit boards and the camera body. You'll need a lot of expertise as well, but it can all be bought in.
Just to be quite clear about this, if you're going to build a camera, or an external recorder, or some fundamentally new category of product for the film and TV industry, you still need to more than know what you're doing. You have to be knowledgable, have access to finance, and have a stomach for a roller-coaster ride - but none of that is new. What is new is the speed at which a new product can take off.
Extremely rapid progress
Why is this?
For a start, all of this is against a background of extremely rapid progress. Typically computer technology (that's what cameras are now!) goes down in price and up in capability. You could almost say that if you want something that's impossible now, all you have to do is wait.
Remember the first time you saw an NLE capable of editing HD video? I do. It was at a product demonstration at a trade show. The computer in question was the fastest thing available at the time, and, next to it, was a stack of RAIDed disks, with their red activity lights on solidly. There was absolutely no doubt that this set-up was going flat out just to play a single track of HD. When it got to a dissolve (which, of course, entailed playing back two streams of HD) it would manage a couple of seconds, and then start shuddering. You could almost see this thing sweating.
Now, I can do that on my battery-powered laptop. In fact, I can edit 4K if I'm choosy about codecs. Meanwhile, you can capture and play back HD video on a field recorder that you can hold in the palm of your hand, and professional ingest systems can handle multiple HD streams, transcoding between codecs in real time.
So, the rate of innovation and progress is so high (and speeding up all the time) that merely by waiting, things become possible that weren't before. This alone can take people - and entire industries - by surprise.
Look at the iPhone. It first came out almost exactly seven years ago. When it did, it wasn't by accident. Apple took about seven years to design it. Some say that they were actually further ahead with a tablet than a phone, but switched priorities when they realised what a huge opportunity there was for a touchscreen smartphone.
But they waited for the moment that they knew was coming, when the technology would be good enough to support a product that would do all the things it had to in order to be viable out in the market.
And when it did arrive, it didn't just shake up the phone industry, it shook up almost every other industry as well. Because it was so much more than a phone.
It was, literally, a computer in your pocket. It wasn't as fully featured as today's phones, but that didn't matter: there was enough new to take in that few people seriously complained about the absence of an app store.
The first iPhone made the point well, and Apple sustained the fascination and excitement by rolling out even more features gradually. Hidden behind all this is the biggest improvement of all: the current iPhone is not just a bit faster; not five times; not ten times - but an almost unbelievable fifty-six times faster than the first device. Nothing, I think illustrates the rate of progress better than this.
The most disruptive thing
But even that is only part of it. The most disruptive thing of all with the iPhone is that you can run apps on it. Apple (and now the rapidly catching up - or arguably even ahead - Android) provides all the services and the hardware for an almost infinite number of new devices and products based around their phone and their ecosystem. Their APIs ("hooks" and ready made libraries) make it relatively easy for developers to write apps quickly that are astonishingly powerful. It's like being able to build real things out of Lego. At the very least, it's like having a vast inventory of stuff for building your products absolutely free.
So - we have products like Android and the iPhone that have transformed the innovation landscape. But there's more; much more.
The shape of the original bell curve, with its Rogerian segments (Visionary, Early Adopter, Early Mass Market, etc) was largely so because of the time it used to take for people to find out about new products. Twenty years ago, the only way to discover new innovations was to read about them in newspapers and magazines, and to visit tradeshows. Occasionally, you might come across people who already had them - the Early Adopters. This was when the computer press was in its heyday, with each new issue eagerly sought at the local newsagent.
Today, you have online publications like RedShark, which are merely published several times per day, and then there is social media, which is about as instant as it is possible to get. And when I say "instant", I don't just mean that you get a message if you happen to be near a computer: you'll get it whatever you're doing and wherever you're doing it. It is through social media that marketing has gone viral. Rumours of new products can spread across the globe in seconds, complete with pictures and videos. There's no guarantee that the information is correct, but if it isn't, manufacturers have equal access to the means to correct misinformation - but only if they're geared up for social media.
When a product is launched - or even before it is - just about any information that exists is available to anyone. And social media users will add to a manufacturer's information with their own experiences of the product - or just their opinions, right or wrong.
Irrespective of the accuracy of this instant information, if it ticks the right boxes for enough people - who themselves will be tweeting and posting on Facebook about it - then the demand for the product will surge.
And when I say "surge", it almost seems an inadequate word for what happens. This is the almost vertical part of Downes and Nunes' Big Bang.
It means that companies, big or small, have to be ready to cope with an extremely large volume of product sales, at exactly the time when the new device is barely finished, probably with version 1.0 software and when the tech support team is as unfamiliar with the brand new gadget as the buying public. (Technical support is one aspect of the launch of a product that can make or break it - exactly because it is normally sold at an early stage in its development).
While instant success might sound like something that you'd want if you were launching a company or a product, it has a - very rapid - downside, and that is that sales can taper off almost as rapidly as they started. This is the trailing edge of the shark's fin.
It's a tricky scenario to manage. You have to invest heavily in production and all the things that go with it (manuals, packaging, recruiting and training the tech support team) and then be equally prepared, after a short timescale, to scale things down again - so that you're not left with unsold stock or expensive employees who need their salaries paying as sales are plummeting.
While I agree with a lot of the Big Bang theory of Downes and Nunes, there are some points where I think it doesn't cover everything. For example, if your product is essentially a "platform" then, if it's rapidly adopted, it might put you in a position where you own the market because you own a platform.
What's a platform? Sky TV is an example. It provides all the infrastructure, the conditional access (copyright protection etc) and the subscription and billing services. It's probably by far the cheapest way for a new channel to get out to an audience. Another example is Facebook, which provides all sorts of services to, for example, computer games companies. Platforms tend to grow and grow because it's difficult for competitors to get established, and because they can survive and flourish largely as a result of the efforts of the client enterprises that use them.
The Moving Image industry
So, where does this leave our industry? How does all of this apply to cameras, post production and delivery. This is not something that I will attempt to sum up in a few paragraphs. Not least, because I don't know all the answers: at this stage, only the Future does!
We have been in a state of sustained rapid change for several years now. It didn't start at any particular point but if you had to put a date on it, it would probably have been January seven years ago, when the iPhone was announced. Things have definitely been different since then.
What on the face of it is just a clever telephone is actually a large number of absolutely transformative technologies. Any one of these would make a difference, but, together, the effect is almost impossible to characterise, because it's so big.
Here's what the iPhone brought us (not all necessarily for the first time, but the point is that they were all in the same package):
A computer in your pocket
The first touchscreen you could work with your fingers and not a stylus
A screen that covered the whole of the front of the phone
Wifi and mobile phone data connectivity
A proximity detector (to turn the screen off when it's held against your ear)
A music player with a high-resolution screen to show album covers
Google Maps in a mobile device
YouTube in a mobile device
The foundation for a mobile app system
An App Store
An accelerometer (to be joined by a gyroscope in later models)
A fully-functional mobile browser
A texting device
A still camera
A video camera (I don't think the first iPhone did video)
And it's a telephone
There's even more
I've probably left a few things out here. There's more stuff that matters when you start amalgamating these feature: you can make the camera work in conjunction with either the Maps function or some cloud-based mapping database to give you Augmented Reality.
Of all of these abilities the most important is the App system, with the set of APIs that makes it easy to write programs for the iPhone, and the sensors and transducers built into the phone. Whole industries can be toppled by an app in combination with an iPhone's functionality. For example: who buys compact cameras these days? They might have a marginally better lens and sensor but they can't post your pictures to Facebook or Twitter in an instant.
I bought a small HD camcorder a few years ago for £400. My Galaxy Note absolutely takes better video than it does.
I'm pretty sure that the invasion of the smartphones into compact camera and camcorder territory has been detrimental to the viability of virtually every consumer-oriented camera company or division.
Did I mention Android? These phones are getting cheaper all the time, with the Motorola G at only around $199 or less: it's as good as a top-end phone from only 18 months ago.
It's a bit like having a landscape where each different industry has boats afloat in its own lake (eg, telecoms, IT, Broadcasting etc). Because the lakes or ponds in which the companies swim are not connected, there's no need for a broadcaster to worry about a telecoms company.
But what the App system has done is break down the barriers between these lakes. Now, a phone is a threat to virtually every other type of industry, and there have already been victims (eg the compact cameras mentioned above).
The broadcast industry is changing
Look at how the broadcast industry is changing. All of a sudden, it's possible to watch TV over broadband. And this is what people are choosing to do, in droves. They're even "Binge Viewing" entire series. They're doing this not just because it's possible, but because it's convenient, and, a lot of the time, it's better: Netflix proved this with House of Cards - a top-end production, shot in 4K, with top-end actors. This kind-of proves the point: with exponential progress, it's possible to completely up-end a traditional market by bringing out a product that is better, cheaper and more convenient.
Bear this in mind when you're trying to predict what's going to happen next in our industry. Especially if you're a big company. Some will get it right (Sony's Cloud Media Services is an almost autonomous company within Sony, able to react quickly and responsively), while others are almost blind in this new territory.
As I said at the start of this article, I believe this is the year when you either have to understand the effect of exponential progress, or make plans for your early retirement. There has never been a time like this. If you ignore it, you're going to have a hard time. But if you understand it, you'll enjoy the journey.
It's going to be a thrilling ride.
*"White heat" was an expression used by the UK Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in his party's 1963 annual conference, in a reference to the technological change that was taking place at the time, in some ways sowing the seeds for the current climate.