There's been much buzz about the way Apple's iPad will change personal computing, with its lightweight, mouse-free elegant design that allows greater mobility with longer battery life for web surfing, movie-watching and reading books and other print media. But there's another big factor shaping the way we use electronic media and it's related to devices like the iPad because all of this is involved with digital media, the technology that allows all kinds of information to be compressed into binary code and used to access multimedia on multiple platforms, as anyone who's watched a Hollywood movie on their iPod knows.

The revolution is in the realm of home video, the segment of the media that impacted the way we use television starting in the 1980s when the VCR boom exploded across the world. Prior to the arrival of Beta and then VHS videotape player/recorders, there was no way to control one's television or film viewing. When a network broadcast a program or movie, you either caught it the night and time it aired, or caught the episode rerun months later. The Big Three television network, NBC, CBS, ABC, controlled the television content flow on their scheduling grids so that viewers planned their lives around watching their favorite programs.
In the 1970s, the three networks accounted for over 90 % of the audience.

Two huge technological developments allowed Americans to have greater choices over what they did with their television sets. The first was the growth of cable channels and their penetration to more and more homes, giving greater choices of what to watch. The other was the rise of the VCR (the first VHS model shown here) to allow the recording of television programs for later viewing ("timeshifting") which delivered the audience from its captivity to a program schedule; the VCR could also play prerecorded Hollywood films. The result was that the American home was now more autonomous in its viewing choices. Today, television broadcast networks are down to just over 50% of the audience, having lost out to cable and home video.

The rise of the VCR meant that we began to expect to be able to do our own programming, to view what we wanted, when we wanted. And we could fast forward past commercials, undermining the whole business model of commercial television. Later, when the Digital Video Disc brought us an even better version of Hollywood products, we began to enjoy how good movies could look on our television sets. The arrival of high-definition, widescreen monitors enhanced the aesthetic experience.

When the Digital Video Recorder, such as those made by TiVo, arrived, it used a hard drive to digitally record and store program content for pausing, or replaying anything on TV, a real improvement on the now ancient-seeming VCR. Just like the World Wide Web taught us to expect to get print content easily and for free, home video made us our own exhibitors in our home theater.

But as "digital convergence" made all kinds of content available on all kinds of devices, the term Video on Demand became one of the buzzwords in circulation: the expectation that someday soon, we would be able to order up any content we had once had to rent from our closest Blockbuster store or through the mail from Netflix. But digital convergence means that all kinds of devices can be conduits for the same streaming content. Thus it is that I have begun to experience some of the latest advances in home video.

We have a TiVo HD DVR that records many hours of programming and saves it, creating a library of movies and other programs that can be watched at anytime. We also have added a Tivo wireless adapter which receives wireless signals from our computer's router. In essence, our router sends out signals from our cable broadband connection to our TiVo so that we can access You Tube, Amazon and other content providers over the Internet. But the biggest source of offerings is that we can watch hundreds of movies and television shows on our Netflix account this way in standard and high definition. For weeks we've been watching successive season of Lost in beautiful detail whenever we want to.

But wait, there's more-Months ago, Netflix sent out an e-mail asking if we'd like to watch content from our Instant Queue on my son's Wii game console. They sent us a disc that enabled the Wii, already able to receive wireless signals, to play back Netflix programs picked up from our router. Ever since, I've been able to watch movies, documentaries and television programs while using our treadmill. And last week I did the same thing on my son's Playstation 3, which brings Netflix content in even better resolution. If I'm in the middle of a program, on any of these three devices, or one of our computers, I can stop it, and resume the program on another device in the house.

I can tell already that this will continue to change our media habits. As DVD and Blu-Ray sales stay flat, and as more titles become available instantly, we will watch more streaming content instead of having to wait for it by mail, as we have done with Lost episodes. I will still prefer to watch Blu-Ray discs of classic and major films but HD streaming at what looks like 1080i quality will certainly suffice for lots of other content, when more arrives.

This fascinating cnet article reports on Netflix's strategy of getting more and more rights to programming from Hollywood studios. Even Netflix's much reported agreement to delay receiving Warner Bros. DVDs for three weeks (allowing the studio to sell DVDs rather than allowing Netfix to rent them) is a long-term tactic to obtain the video streaming rights that will one day save them millions in postage fees as their growing customer based opts to stream movies rather than order them through the mail. They see that as the soon-arriving future of home video-on demand.