In the battle of the network superstars between free-to-stream, ad-supported video (the Hulu model) and pay-per-show, ad-free TV (the iTunes model), there's been a big missing piece: how to monetize shows and sell ads for content that's downloaded and played on mobile devices like the iPad? Obviously, it's a better deal for the user if they can watch at will, without having to maintain network connectivity on the go (to say nothing of the streaming quality, or lack thereof, when connected over 3G), but making sure they see the ads in the content -- and reporting back to advertisers who want to know who watched what -- is much more challenging for anywhere, anytime viewers.
Wherever there's trouble, they're there on the double: the Bloodhound Gang known as Apple's engineering team has a patent application that may offer a way forward. First filed in September of 2008 and made public on March 4, this patent received a thorough analysis over at Patently Apple. The core idea: watch a block of ads to 'unlock' the next segment of video content, not unlike the way most network streaming sites appear to work now. The difference is in the implementation, reporting and controlling how the ads appear and which content is freed up. Users might be able to 'pay past' the ads, or watch them all at the beginning of the program to deliver a more seamless viewing session.
More intriguingly, Apple's patents suggest that advertisers can require or customize a particular level & kind of user interaction that will be embedded in the ad experience, requiring viewers to engage on some level before proceeding to the next segment (thereby ensuring that they're paying attention and not off making a snack). That would be something of a Holy Grail for advertisers who fear that their messaging is getting lost in the TiVo/DVR 'just skip it' timeshifting era.
Combined with the October 2009 patent regarding ad-subsidized hardware platforms, which lists Steve Jobs and Mike Matas among its co-inventors, and it's looking like we might be moving towards a future where that $499 iPad can be had for a fantastic, subsidized price of $199... if you accept a certain level of embedded and un-skippable advertising alongside your media and mobility experience. "Magical & revolutionary," you betcha. The idea of power-ads taking over your media playback might not bother everyone, but if you buy Fake Steve's argument, that's where the $30/month TV subscription plan comes in. Can't take the ads? Just pay to play.
Image from Apple patent, courtesy Patently Apple site. No comment on the fact that it looks like a picture of Charlie from Lost (Dominic Monaghan).