By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
Apple hopes its new iPod will bring telly-on-the-go to a mass market. But 20 years ago portable televisions failed to capture the imagination, so what's changed?
In a society constantly on the move, books, newspapers and music are a constant companion for people keen to while away the time spent in transit. But television?
Apple hopes its new iPod, which is yet to be launched in the UK, will ignite a new enthusiasm for telly-on-the-go.
As well as having all the usual music functions, a small 2.5-inch (6.25 cm)screen will show music videos downloaded from iTunes and TV shows like Desperate Housewives, at a cost of $1.99 each.
But haven't we been here before?
Clive Sinclair tried and failed in the early 1980s, then Casio and Sony launched portable televisions which they hoped would revolutionise viewing but never really took off, despite an initial fad.
And plenty of gadgets since then have tried to persuade people that television-viewing need not be restricted to their home.
What's different with Apple is that people can now legally download content, says Tom Dunmore, editor of Stuff magazine. And while rivals like Sony's Playstation Portable focus on movies, Apple is concerned with shorter content.
"Apple realise that TV programmes and music videos are more suitable for watching on the move than films," he says. "We don't necessarily want to watch a small screen for two hours and for some it makes them nauseous."
Over the years, portable televisions have suffered from problems with power and reception, although digital portables are in the pipeline and mobile phones have started to carry some television content.
But Apple is offering content on demand, and it's not the only one. Next year, people will be able to download BBC programmes within seven days of their broadcast, and then watch them on their computers. Licensing issues notwithstanding, other broadcasters are also thought to be interested.
...and 20 years later.
This means the problem of a lack of content which has, says Mr Dunmore, restricted the success of leading portable video players like Archos and Creative would disappear.
But plenty of disincentives for consumers remain, apart from the obvious hazard - shared by books and newspapers - of watching television while sauntering down the street.
Another practical advantage a music player has over TV is that it's tucked safely away and Mr Dunmore says there's the possibility that the Christmas rush for the new iPod or the PSP could fuel a surge in crime. But people who feel self-conscious about brandishing an expensive piece of equipment in public probably don't figure much among the under 24s.
"For young people, because they may live at home with their parents, they don't have much private space so they make the public space private," says Mr Dunmore. "You see people playing with ring tones or playing music out loud and that's an inevitable intrusion into public life and that will continue to happen."
The television experience is not totally alien to public transport. Central Trains is one of a number of rail companies which shows news and documentaries on some of its trains. And people already watch DVDs on laptops.
Some believe the pervasiveness of music, mobile phones and BlackBerrys is stifling interactivity and creative thinking. An article in the New York Times claimed the "compulsion to be wired at all times" meant fewer wandering minds and therefore fewer "eureka" moments.
But Mr Dunmore says: "When people are travelling around London you need something like the iPod to create a personal space because it has disintegrated with so many people around. So people need to immerse themselves in something like a virtual world."
Psychologist and usability expert Tom Stewart thinks the key drawbacks with telly-on-the-go are that you can't do other things at the same time, like walking, and it's a passive experience.
"You can watch a television programme and you don't feel as engaged as you do listening to a radio programme, when you feel like a participant," he says. "A good DJ makes you feel like they're talking to you. Video is a more one-way experience."
Despite that, he predicts the new iPod could be a breakthrough, due to Apple's usability, its link with iTunes and the breadth of content on offer. But scepticism remains - and in some well-informed quarters.
Professor Michael Bull, a leading expert on iPod culture based at the University of Sussex, says people with TV on their mobile phones are mainly young men accessing either reality TV, which earns the telephone companies revenue from voting, and porn.
Radio's popularity endures despite predictions of its decline
"It strikes me as more a minority sport whereas music is universal," he says. "Rather like mobile phones, which have two main applications - speaking, followed by texting - everything else is a niche market and probably with iPods it will be the same.
"Even if you're on an aeroplane the batteries mean you can't watch something throughout a long flight.
"I've mixed feelings and yet to be convinced that it will take off in a meaningful way, mainly because people have to be static to use it."
There are many thousands of brits living abroad who'd dearly love to watch either the news or Eastenders whilst on our own commutes, travels or whilst waiting in line for a work permit renewal. Radio online and Podcasts were a breakthrough in this respect... TV content is a big move forwards. Yes, it's a niche market but so are 4x4 vehicles... or are they?
Robert Barabino, Buenos Aires Argentina
I love iPod`s but since I have bought my PSP I couldn`t consider buying a video iPod (I may buy non video model).
With my PSP i can convert my DVD collection (among other things) into mp4. The screen is much large than the iPod screen. So its the same with viewing pictures as well I can take pictures with my sony picture and view them straight away on my PSP.
I think Apple software and marketing is much better than Sony`s. So I think Apple may win out with the non-techies because it is easy to use. There are many applications for the PSP but Sony is trying to block them!!!!
Apple please make a bigger screen version.
Reza, Osaka, Japan (from UK)
I think people are missing the point with the video iPod. Whether you want to watch it on the go or not, its a storage device. 150 hours of video in you hand, that's a lot of DVDs and what's to stop you plugging it into a bigger screen?
The ipod and any other device will suffer from the same drawback as portable TV's and that is the size of the picture. Beinmg able to rewind or whatever is irrelevant, it is the size of the screen that failed portable TV's and it will be that that will mean that digital TV on the move will also not appeal to the majority after like portable TV's the initial fad stage.
Phil Jeremy, London, UK
The iPod is very much different to portable TV 20 years ago. It is the merging of video playback and music playback, so you have to choice to watch a TV program while on the bus, train or tube then switch to music for when walking on the street - all with one device. And if the BBC starts to make its TV programs downloadable then I can see it becoming popular. I am sure other makers of mp3 players will be watching with interest.
I can hardly write a text message on the move. I can't imagine how I'd manage a portable tv.
Why oh why would you want to sit on the train and strain your eyes at a piddly 2.5" screen? The great thing about the mp3 player is its lack of bulk, allowing easy stowage or hiding. White headphones are already an indicator of an iPod, but holding the thing in your hand while commuting? Who's honestly going to do that? Music can be listened to whilst walking, driving, doing the washing up etc., but video content requires far too much concentration and is no longer passive. I can only see this as a bad thing as people not paying attention wander out in front of cars or miss their stops... There's a reason portable telly never took off. It's impractical.
Chris W, Wales, UK
I think a key difference between this time and previous attempts to get people to watch video on the move is that we are all much more used to owning and operating mobile devices. Before it was an alien concept but now a lot of people are much more "techno savvy". Having said that, I think this latest twist to the mobile concept is still just largely jumping on the bandwagon of ways to part people from their cash. This technology will find its niche, but not necessarily in the ways the creators expect.
Dave, Swindon, UK
Why would I want to pay £2 to watch last night's Desperate Housewives on a 2" screen when I can record it on my TIVO or Sky+ for free and watch it on my widescreen telly from my comfy armchair?
Answer: I wouldn't and I won't.
Nick Butcher, Cardiff, Wales
What's different now, is that you don't have to adjust your antenna and adjust the signal; you'll just have to download and watch. That said, i think the screen is rather small and the price is disproportionate.
Television companies, particularly the BBC, seem to be determined to get us to watch TV whether we want to or not. Here in Birmingham we have a huge great screen broadcasting Neighbours at lunchtime to anyone walking past, screens on buses and trains that make it nearly impossible to read a book and News 24 in New Street station. Now presumably we'll have to get used to being walked into in the street by people watching TV rather than where they're going?
Luke, Birmingham, UK
I would happily watch TV "on the go" - it would be perfect to take on journeys on public transport etc. The only thing that concerns me is whether the UK would have sufficient access to material. I read that at present the downloads are only available in the US, a problem I have also had with music downloads. Would there be restrictions on people outside the US downloading programs early? If so, how and when would we get them? I'll watch with interest to see if this is a product I want to buy.
Sarah, Cambridge, UK
Having owned an Archos player for over a year now I have enjoyed its use because it can record directly off the TV. Offering limited and poor content legally is not appealing at all and only helps to boost illegal downloads. Rightly or wrongly I can record the DVDs I own and watch them whilst travelling something that is I am assuming illegal under the current paranoid and frustrating laws which treat us all as criminals. Get the available legal content right and its a winner, restrict what users can watch then its a winner otherwise put it back on the drawing board for another decade.
Alex, whitehaven, uk
Apple's Video iPod is NOT a portable TV like 20 years ago - it's crucially different and that is why it should be successful. How can you watch a broadcast program on the move or during your daily commute? Every time you had to look up, get off the train, you'd miss part of the programme, and THAT is why portable TV didn't take off.
But, being that you can stop/start/rewind a downloaded program, that's an entirely different matter. One only has to notice the increasing number of commuters playing back DVD's on their laptops on the train! What concerns me though, is how many road accidents people are going to have with one of these things on their dash-board...
Richard Olearczyk, Oxford