In October 2009, Patently Apple posted a report titled "Apple Prepares to Rock the Market with Hardware Subsidizing Program" and when All Things Digital decided to post my report - it took off like a bat out of hell. The report was clearly about subsidizing hardware in exchange for having users watch advertisements on their system which would happen to include some interaction with a few ads so that the advertisers would help to flip the hardware bill. Fair enough. Well, some noses got out of joint with that news – In fact, Robert X. Cringely took on Apple's proposal - calling it a Patently Crazy idea. That report seemed to ignite some kind of negative undercurrent or cult that culminated in the recent "Cracked" report titled "5 Reasons You Should Be Scared of Apple" that has since racked up more than 1.13 million hits! Hmm, how a simple, logical idea about subsidization turned into Apple being an evil empire is beyond me. So I could only imagine how the crazies will react to today's patent report that carries along on that very same theme of free television programming coming to computers and portable devices that will – yes, enforce ad participation. Yet for those of you who understand how the real world works - today's patent could actually shed some light on what Steve Jobs could have discussed with the networks when proposing Apple's new 99 cent content deal. The patent in fact points to a multiple tiered ad content system that could be set to a sliding price scale. And lastly – the patent indirectly provides us with some insight into how Apple could utilize their recently acquired Quattro Wireless ad service in the future.
Media content providers are exploring new distribution methods for traditional media. Internet and portable media device playback have joined the ranks of broadcast and cable television as major distribution outlets for television shows, user-generated content, movies, radio broadcasts, etc. Content providers are anxious to transition and adapt existing advertising business models for use with the Internet and portable devices.
Advertising partners want statistics demonstrating which shows are popular and which advertisements have been viewed. With videos hosted on a webpage, such statistics are relatively trivial to collect, but when content is downloaded to a portable device, such statistics become difficult to collect and report. The general public is not likely to voluntarily report these statistics in any meaningful numbers. The general public is also not likely to use a cumbersome, confusing, or difficult system to play media on portable devices. If illicitly downloaded media content is easier to use than legally obtained media content, a number of users are more likely to take the path of least resistance. Copyright issues aside, the problem with illicitly downloaded media content is that the content providers have no way to measure the popularity of a piece of media and no way to capitalize on the media by selling advertisement slots.
Accordingly, what is needed in the art is a way to introduce advertisements during media playback and record information about how and when they are viewed.
An Advertisement Insertion Scheme
Apple's patent FIG. 2 shown below illustrates an advertisement insertion scheme. A single episode asset 202 is the target for inserting advertisements. In this example, the system provides a digital version of a broadcast television show as the single episode asset, but can use other audio, video, or multimedia content. In an example embodiment the system provides the single episode asset as a single file with accompanying metadata that indicates locations for episode segments 204 interspersed with ad breaks 206. As shown, an ad break can consist of one or more ads. The system presents a single ad at the initial ad break and two ads at each subsequent ad break. Other scenarios exist, including dynamic ad breaks with variable numbers of ads. A number of factors can influence the number of ads played in each ad break, including a fee paid by a viewer, a fee paid by an advertiser, storage capacity on the playback device, available network bandwidth, etc.
A user can download copies of an episode asset on various and diverse playback devices, such as an Apple iPod, Apple iPod Touch, Apple iPhone, Apple TV, personal computer, etc. The ad breaks for each episode asset are in the same spot for each playback device. In one aspect, the content providers of episode assets dictate where ad breaks are to be shown and how many ads are in each ad break. The system includes ad break locations, ads, end-of-life information for individual ads or for the ad bundle as a whole, and other related information in an ad bundle. The system can store the ad bundle as a part of the episode asset file or as a separate file. End-of-life information is also known as expiration information. When an ad or an ad bundle expires, the system will not play the ad or the ad bundle.
The system can use individual bundles of ads, one for each ad break. In one aspect, viewing an ad break 206 unlocks an episode segment 204, as shown in FIG. 3.
Sample UI of Locked & Unlocked Content Based on Watching Ads
Apple's patent FIG. 3 illustrates a sample user interface for a playback system. The system displays the episode on the main display 302 and overlays several user interface elements as needed.
While the exemplary display combines the user interface elements over the main display, all or part of the user interface elements may be displayed in a separate area on the display, or may be removed entirely from the main display and can be shown on a remote control device, such as a Harmony 1000 Advanced Universal Remote, Apple iPod, a personal computer, iPhone, PDA, etc.
The system can display all or some of these elements all the time or can display them only when requested by a user by touching the screen, pressing a button or a key on a keyboard, moving a mouse, etc. The system displays a bar 304 which represents the total playback time of the episode asset. The system displays a cursor 306 or other indicator of current playback temporal location. In FIG. 3, the cursor 306 is at location 8:45, meaning that 8 minutes and 45 seconds have elapsed since the beginning of the episode. While the cursor shown is on top of the bar, another way to show current playback location is to simply display an hour, minute, and second indicator as text in a corner of the main display 302, such as 00:08:45.00. The system indicates ad breaks 308 at various locations along the episode bar 304. While the shown ad breaks 308 are uniform in size, the system can adjust ad break representations on the user interface narrower or wider to reflect their respective durations.
As ad breaks are viewed, a segment of the episode associated with that ad break becomes an unlocked segment 310. The unlocked segment can remain unlocked indefinitely, can remain unlocked for a fixed, limited duration, or can remain unlocked for an unknown, but limited duration, such as until the viewer has finished viewing the entire episode.
Segments for which an ad break has not been viewed remain as locked segments 312. In this user interface example, unlocked segments 310 and locked segments 312 are differentiated by shading. Locked segments are shaded and unlocked segments are unshaded. Locked and unlocked segments do not need to be differentiated, but some kind of differentiation makes the user interface more intuitive and user friendly. Locked and unlocked segments can be differentiated by width of the episode bar, by color, by partial or total transparency, texture, etc. At the end of the episode bar is an indicator of total run time 316. The total run time may or may not include the run time of the included ad breaks.
Will you be Able to Cheat? No-No-No!
If a user moves the cursor 306 to the right into a locked segment, thus indicating a desire to view a locked segment, the user interface may respond in a number of ways:
One alternative is to reject the movement and return the cursor to the original position. The rejection can include playing a chime or popping a message up on the display.
Another alternative is to jump back to the corresponding unlocking ad break, play the ad break to unlock the desired segment, and then jump forward to the temporal location to which the user wanted to advance. The cursor can either remain at the location where the user wanted to advance while the ad break is played, or the cursor can jump backward to the ad break then jump forward to the intended location.
Yet another alternative is to allow the user to view the content at the indicated location, but at the next ad break, play the ad break to unlock the already partially viewed locked segment and play the ad break to unlock the next locked segment.
Other variations exist and may be implemented as needed based on customer usage habits, playback device capabilities, or other factors.
The bottom line is that you're going to watch ads, like it or not, if you want free shows on your iPod, iPhone or other portable devices, just like you have to today on your TV if you didn't PVR the show. Of course there could be a 99 cent show option in the works to half the ads or pay what Apple charges today on iTunes for ad free shows.
In a typical usage scenario, a user watches the episode asset just like broadcast television; each segment of the episode is followed by an ad break. While the traditional delivery of ad breaks is familiar, the present system provides alternatives to traditional presentation of advertisements. For example, a user can opt to view all the ad breaks and unlock the entire episode asset before viewing any episode segments at all. This way the user can watch the entire episode without interruption or distraction. Yet remember – you'll have to interact with the ads to ensure that you're not off making a sandwich while the ads play to no one. No-no-no you can't do that – ha!
Sure – Treat us like Morons - Ha!
In one aspect, ad breaks can be mandatory or optional. For example, a content provider can make the first ad optional to provide incentive for the viewer to become engrossed in the show. Once this happens, he or she is more likely to view the remaining ads to unlock the rest of the show. In a typical television show episode, the system shows a short (1 or 2 minute) segment known as a teaser in the beginning to set up or introduce some element of the plot before the substance of the story plays out. The ad break between the teaser and the first larger portion of the episode can be made optional. A first ad break before any episode content can be optional as well. The system can include an optional flag in the ad break itself when packaging the ad bundle or can simply unlock the first two segments to allow a user to freely skip around. The system can display ad breaks with an optional flag with some indication that they are optional, such as shading or a different color.
Ad System Overview
Apple's patent FIG. 4 illustrates an example system embodiment. A portal 402, or online store such as the iTunes Store or Real Rhapsody, interfaces with an online playback device 404, such as a personal computer, Apple iPhone, etc.
An online playback device is connected to a local network or to the Internet. Some typical examples of online playback devices include: a personal computer with iTunes software installed; a PDA with a music subscription account; and an Apple iPhone with iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store software.
An online playback device can further interface with an offline playback device 406. One example of such a pairing of devices is a personal computer with iTunes software installed (the online playback device) that syncs with an iPod Classic (the offline playback device). The iPod Classic has no networking abilities, but it can sync with a computer to receive episodes from the portal.
A content provider 408, such as NBC, CBS, CNN, etc., can access the portal through a content provider interface 412 to upload and manage episode assets. Content providers also include independent or small media producers, or motion picture producers. Episodic video content generated by individuals or small groups can be used as well as content from large television and entertainment studios.
Additionally, non-episodic video content such as feature length motion pictures can be segmented into quasi episodes for purposes of the invention. The content provider interface can be a web-based interface, a dedicated software client, or any other suitable interface. Content providers 408 supply episode information 414 through the content provider interface. The system transfers the episode information to the episode bundle factory 416. Episode information includes metadata, duration, expiration information, etc. Content providers also provide ad bundle information to the ad bundle server 420. The ad bundle server feeds information about individual ads, ad breaks, expiration information, etc. to the episode bundle factory. The portal transfers the episode bundle 418 generated by the episode bundle factory to the online playback device 404, typically when a user requests or purchases a particular episode.
The content providers upload the episode asset to an asset preparation module 424. The asset preparation process prepares different formats of episode assets 426 and ad assets 428 for playback on different devices. For example, the asset preparation module transcodes a lower resolution version for an iPod Nano and a higher resolution version for an Apple TV, and the maximum resolution for a high definition digital video recorder.
Content providers can also provide authorization for reproduction and storage of their episode assets 426 on a content delivery network 410, such as that provided by Akamai, for efficient and quick distribution of episode assets. Ad providers may provide authorization as well, but advertisers are less likely to be protective of their advertisement as long as it is viewed. The ad bundle server communicates with an "updater" 422 in the online playback device. The updater verifies expiration information and retrieves new ad assets and/or new episode assets if corresponding assets stored on the online playback device 404 are expired. The updater inserts the new ad assets and/or episode assets into the episode bundle. The ad assets and episode assets may be included themselves or links to their locations online may be included. The online playback device 404 includes a media cache 430 which retrieves episode assets and ad assets from the content delivery network for stored episode bundles.
The playback engine 432 takes an episode bundle and retrieves the correct media from the media cache for output to a user. First, any protected content is passed through a Digital Rights Management (DRM) module 434, incorporating technology such as FairPlay by Apple or DVB-CPCM by the DVB Project. When the DRM module authenticates the media and authorizes the user to view the media content, the playback engine outputs the media to a user and records information about the playback in the impression logging cache 436. The impression logging cache records information such as the identity of a viewer and identity of media viewed, when the content was viewed, how many times the content was viewed, etc. The impression logging cache reports this information to the impression logger 438 in the portal.
In cases where the online playback device cannot communicate with the portal, the impression logging cache can serve as an intermediate storage. When communications are reestablished, the cache uploads any previously unreported impression logs, including those gathered before and during the period of noncommunication. Reporting can be done at some periodic interval or in real time as media is being viewed. Content providers can view the impression logger data through the content provider interface 412. This allows content providers to see how many people have viewed each piece of media content, how often it has been viewed, etc. These metrics are invaluable to both advertisers and content providers.
An offline playback device can be considered an extension of the online playback device, since the offline playback device must go through an online device at some point to obtain episodes and ads to play back. Online devices, in contrast, get information directly from the portal through the Internet or through a local network.
In the case of offline playback devices, the offline episode bundle factory 440 in the online playback device downloads an episode bundle, complete with episode assets and ad assets and assembles it into an offline package. The offline package is synchronized by a device synchronizer 442 to the offline playback device as an episode bundle 444. Much like the online playback device, the offline playback engine 446 retrieves an offline episode bundle for output to a user.
Any protected content is passed through a DRM module 448 such as Apple's FairPlay. When the DRM module authenticates the media and authorizes the user to view the media content, the offline playback engine outputs the media to a user and records information about the playback in the impression logging cache 450. The impression logging cache records information like who watched which media, when it was watched, how many times it was watched, etc. The impression logging cache reports this information to the impression logging cache 436 in the online playback device which reports the information to the impression logger in the portal. Reporting is performed when the offline playback device is synced with the online playback device by the synchronizer. Content providers can view the impression logger data through the content provider interface.
When the offline playback device syncs with the online playback device, the updater could check for the download, and then sync new ads to replace any ad assets which have expired or are about to expire. Additionally, the updater could be linked with a user profile to provide specifically targeted ads to the intended viewer. For example, the ads sent to a teenager's iPod can be completely different from the ads sent to an adult's iPod, even if they are both downloading the same episode asset.
In one aspect, a user purchases the episode ad-free. The same episode asset is provided to a purchasing user and a user who watches the episode for free with ads. The only difference is that the ad bundle server returns an empty set of ad assets or returns nothing. That is to say that the purchased and ad-supported episodes are the same file or asset. A user can pay to view an episode completely ad-free or could pay to remove a certain number or percentage of ads in a tiered system. Multiple tiers or levels of ad content can be provided on a sliding price scale. The system is expandable for future ad presentation models consistent with the principles described herein.
Apple's patent concludes with FIG. 6 as shown below, which illustrates an example media bundle 602. The media bundle contains a media presentation 604. The media presentation is one unified file. Copies of the same file are provided to all viewers regardless of the types of advertisements, amount of advertisements, etc. That is, a person who purchases the content ad-free gets the same file as a person who downloads and watches the content with ads. The media "payload" is the same; only the advertisement bundle differs.
Apple credits Rainer Brodersen and Augustine Farrugia as the inventors of patent application 20100057576.
A Side Note
The bottom line is that all of the major TV networks need to get their downloadable content tightly integrated with advertising so that they could generate profits equal to what they get from advertisers and cable companies today if the online side of the business is ever to take off. Apple wants the TV networks to achieve just that because it's in Apple's long term interest to find a way to side step the cable companies to get their real Apple TV off the ground. As Tim Cook recently phrased it – "…our gut says there's something there."
One of the major themes that Intel focused on during their fall 2009 IDF conference was called The Three Vectors of Innovation. A theme designed to drill home the message that the advertising industry had clearly advanced innovation during the last century in respect to the telephone, radio and television industries - and will once again in the future. Online entertainment based innovation will dry up before it ever gets off the ground if there's no advertising dollars to develop next generation content – plain and simple. And when you're 16 to 19 years of age, who cares, right? But the rest of us who know better, it's good to know that Apple has a system that could once again spark some innovation in an industry that is at a complete loss of how to transition to the next level. In fact it was CBS that joined Intel on stage during the IDF segment that I described above - and it was oh so difficult to see how an industry appeared to be so lost and desperate to connect to this generation and its technologies. So it's no wonder that CBS was first to jump on Apple's program calling for lower pricing on television content.
Yet there's always a flipside – to everything. In this case, the problem that I have with such a system is that it shows me that Apple appears to be on track to use their iTunes power franchise to monitor our behaviour and share that information with who - Advertisers? Maybe I'll have to read my iTunes agreement closer next time. I didn't realize that Apple would share information about my purchases with third parties. Hmm, I love innovation – but at what cost to my privacy?
In general - too much of our private information is being demanded by companies and too much of our lives are going public. Google's Buzz is just the latest example of corporate arrogance gone awry. So while I applaud Apple for trying to beat the prices of content down for all of us – and help another industry transition to the next level - I hope that they never misuse our trust.
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