While 2011 has been the year of the smartphone, 2012 looks set to be the beginning of a major push by the likes of Sony, Apple and Samsung to sell their customers families of interconnected screen devices, serving up digitally stored entertainment libraries.
People will be urged to throw out their remaining CDs and boxed sets and store music, films, TV shows, even family photo albums on the servers of multinational corporations. Content must now not only be acquired, but there will be fees for the computing space in which to store it.
Sony’s announcement last week that it was to take sole control of its Sony Ericsson phones venture was a key element in what chairman and chief executive Howard Stringer calls his “four screen” strategy.
The media and entertainment conglomerate now has smartphones to add to its Bravia TV sets, Vaio PCs and tablet computers, not to mention games consoles. And of course it has a music label and a Hollywood studio producing the Spiderman franchise to supply the content.
Samsung has no studios, although its television sets, tablets and smartphones are outselling many better known brands.
The real game changer is expected, as ever, to be Apple. The consumer electronics world is holding its breath as it awaits the launch of a television set, which industry watchers believe could be on sale by the end of next year.
Apple launched its iCloud service along with the iPhone 4S last month. It will store for free any content bought via iTunes, and, for a price, users can add extra items. The iCloud will then make that content available on any Apple devices we happen to own.
At the moment it is only set up to store music, books and applications like emails and documents, but films and TV shows must surely follow.
Apple’s fourth screen is likely to usher in the idea that not only should our bookshelves and CD racks be cleared, but that all the consumer electronics devices in any given household should be purchased from the same manufacturer so that they can share content without hiccups.
Very convenient, but not everyone will want to entrust their libraries and memories to the cloud. And what about cloud hopping? How easy will it be to transfer that precious cargo from one company to another, or to access it from a device not made by the host?
There will be consumer protection issues. Regulators can only step in if one player becomes dominant and it is still hard to imagine two or three companies producing the majority of our consumer electronics. But the four screen strategy, if it catches on, could squeeze out many smaller players. We may soon be forced to chose a family. And, as Apple knows, many are already making that choice.