Mobile Media: the Future is Now

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Smart cellular phones playing movie trailers while you're in line for cinema tickets; video conferencing on video camera- and LCD screen-equipped mobile devices; GPS-endowed phones delivering special offers as you walk past shopping plazas and donut stores; and playing cell phone games with distant friends while riding on the subway. Surprisingly, the technology for creating streaming media for mobile devices is ready to fly now and some mobile video, audio, and animated content streaming is already possible. But who can watch?

Cellular phone features have taken off in just the last few years—with devices decreasing in size and increasing in functionality—but almost no phones today have screens capable of displaying motion images. The good news is that they are on the way. Most domestic wireless carriers are still building networks for reliable voice communications and have neither the bandwidth nor the expertise to stream media…yet. But to get content into the hands of an eager public, carriers and phone makers (rather than the content owners themselves) find themselves exploring business partnerships with heretofore-usual shipmates.

Like the early Web, mobile streaming boasts seemingly limitless potential and the "if you build it they will come" mantra beckons. Of course, it did for the dot coms, too. But, while "they" did come to the Web, they, unfortunately, did not often bring along their wallets. Wireless adventures for rich content may be equally as tenuous, but with one huge advantage: a billing infrastructure is already in place. Specific business models for media distribution have yet to be determined in many cases and that makes now the right time for forming strategies and alliances. The possibilities of future annuities have wireless build-outs well-funded, well-underway, and keenly-watched, even if the future at first seems distant.

Compressing video for low bitrates is nothing new. Computers in the days of early QuickTime were slow and couldn't play more than postage size, low or virtual "no" frame rate clips. Then, just as computers got faster and the video got better, compressionists tried to push video through the even smaller pipes of erstwhile dial-up Internet connections. Wireless connectivity is, in large part, just the latest video squeeze play and years of practice and evolving standards like MPEG-4 have yielded solutions that are essentially ready to get up and go. But, where to? What devices will play video and how will the streams get there? Today, there are very few domestically-available mobile devices that can display color images, let alone motion video. PDAs like Compaq's color iPAQ and Sony's Clié can and some targeted business and financial trial applications have had limited success. But, mobile streaming in the big picture is really about mass-market phones that will likely be quite a bit different from the ones we use today.

A few such phones—from Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson—do already exist, but all abroad. That will begin to change when Nokia brings here a version of its PDA/phone Communicator, already available in Europe and Asia, later this year. Assuming it will be the peer of its international cousins, the domestic 9290 Communicator will look like a typical phone on the outside, but opening the side vertically reveals a miniature keyboard and an LCD (thousands of colors) capable of playing video clips. Built on the Symbian EPOC operating system, the Communication will have both Flash and RealVideo players, as well as mobile word processing, spreadsheets, and a presentation viewer. It's a dramatic departure from today's cell phones, but perhaps a glimpse at those of tomorrow and next year.

Another peek at the future comes from Sony Ericsson, a joint venture between the huge electronics and entertainment conglomerate and the Swedish wireless networking and phone company. The T68i, available only internationally, but overtly displayed on the company's domestic Web site, has an optional camera accessory called CommuniCam that will take still images that the phone can then send to another device. The P800, also only international so far, has the camera built in. Neither supports motion video yet, however, with Sony, maker of professional and consumer video products and owner of a major motion picture studio, involved, the ultimate direction is easy to predict. Sending video messages rather than still images should happen as soon as the company sees a large enough market opportunity.

Mobile videophones could hypothetically play anything from personal greetings to full-length motions pictures, but there has to be an incentive for the public to watch content on the relatively tiny screens of future video-ready phones. Companies active in the space see personal communication driving the adoption because it will be unique to the medium. Where other videoconferencing solutions have had lukewarm receptions, many are optimistic that point-to-point situation-to-situation video messages will generate more heated interest. In other words, seeing someone or something on the road, at a construction or vacation site, or in action may prove far more interesting than someone sitting in an office.

Ziv Eliraz, vice president for business development for Emblaze, one of just a few mobile streaming technology and infrastructure companies, points to email and messaging as the applications presently driving wireless beyond simple voice telephony. "Visual messaging is an extension of that: it's created by someone for someone else and that's what communication is all about. Phones are very personal and the content must be as well. It's already happening in Japan and it will be in this country very soon," says Eliraz.

That may leave more general-purpose content owners on the sideline initially unless they can tailor packages attractive to on-the-go individuals. The obvious possibilities include timely news and financial feeds, sports highlights, and other content groupings that have been successful on the Web.

The senior vice president for marketing at Packet Video, another company focused on delivering reliable video streams, Fernando Corona, agrees that there are a lot of possibilities for streaming mobile media. But, the most viable will be most targeted including person-to-person messaging, personally selected news information like sports or financial updates, or business-to-person advertising. "It has to start with personal services," says Corona. "The large entertainment content owners are very interested, too, but they'll need to wait for a market to form. They're used to having their content viewed by millions of people, not the tens of thousands that will be in the first wave of mobile media. The exception might be trailers or advertisements that bring people to other venues."

The unique nature of mobile video has also already inspired location-specific applications, like zoomable maps, a New York City subway navigator, and tourist sightseeing tips. Of course, killing time in an airport lobby with a video-on-demand episode of a favorite show or movie may also find a strong audience if it's affordable enough.

And ultimately, what content succeeds in the mobile world will likely depend as much as anything on what partnerships are formed, what business models are established, and how much consumers will be asked to pay. All things being equal, carriers like anything that begets more airtime usage. However, they're unlikely to want to share much of that base revenue, especially if it is supporting integrated streaming infrastructures and operat- ing costs. Many services may, therefore, face a monthly access fee.

For example, sports enthusiasts might pay something like $4.95 to access clips from ESPN. That service fee will either go straight to the content holder or be shared by the content holder and the carrier, likely negotiated case-by-case, based on the potential pull of the content. For messaging or short clips, carriers may opt to charge on a per message basis rather than on straight airtime. That would be close to current short text message services that are beginning to proliferate.

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