Random House Gets VOCEL: Invests in Mobile Edutainment

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Article ImageWith Ovum—an independent UK-based technology and research consultancy—forecasting mobile phone connections will hit the 2 billion mark next year, it's no wonder content owners are scrambling to repurpose content for mobile device delivery.

So far, music labels and broadcast stations have dominated mobile content offerings. Together they ring in record revenues for bundled content offerings that include ringtones, wallpapers, music snippets, and text alerts linked to music artists and popular TV shows. Most traditional publishing houses, however, have been conspicuous in their absence, but this is poised to change: improvements in memory and battery power, coupled with recent advances in audio and display, allow mobile devices to deliver consumers a vastly improved experience for content of all sorts.

Edutainment is one content type benefiting from improved mobile delivery, according to Hubert Haarmann, director of eBusiness at Langenscheidt, a German publishing group with more than 10,000 titles including dictionaries, travel guides, and the Berlitz language courses. Langenscheidt, which boasts of being the first publishing house to explore content delivery, launched its first text dictionary service in 1999. According to Haarmann, book content—once considered too "old world" to be a component of new media—is enjoying increased popularity. "Consumers want content-to-go, and they want to enjoy it on-the-go," Haarmann says. "Our travel and language content is predestined for distribution to the mobile phone." At Langenscheidt it's a "six-figure business" with a bright future.

Stateside, Random House Inc. recognizes the opportunity and has announced its own plans to develop mobile content that will enable consumers to "turn downtime into productive time," according to Keith Titan, VP of new media for Random House Inc. Random House, through its investment subsidiary Random House Ventures, recently acquired a significant minority stake in VOCEL, a provider of branded applications to mobile phones. "We did the investment because we wanted more than a simple content partnership; we want to work with them (VOCEL) to learn more about the mobile marketplace from the inside, and to understand where that market is going and how we can best capitalize on the longer term strategic opportunities there," Titan explains.

Random House already works with VOCEL through Princeton Review, a publisher and test-preparation company in which Random House has a minority ownership. VOCEL's patent-pending technology serves as the basis of Princeton's mobile content offering, which enables students to practice drills in math, reading, and grammar via mobile phones. Students can download a bank of questions or have the phone call them at set intervals with practice test questions.

VOCEL's push technology sends interactive messages to the user's mobile phone. "Consumers can schedule when it's convenient for them to access mobile content and the phone will call them at those times for a quick interactive session," explains Carl Washburn, VOCEL founder and chief executive. As Washburn sees it, mobile has been the method of choice for consumers to access entertainment content such as music and games, and now the time is ripe to use it for learning. "With the mobile phone consumers can prepare for a college entrance exam, learn a new language, or improve their vocabulary," Washburn says. His inspiration was his own 16-year-old son, who preferred quick, focused study sessions to long, gruelling marathons.

Thus far, all applications that Random House and VOCEL have in discussion revolve around content bites served up in five-minute segments. Under the agreement, Random House will license two product lines to VOCEL: Living Language, a series of foreign-language self-study programs, and Prima Games, a series of video game strategy guides. VOCEL will adapt the content for delivery via mobile phones beginning sometime this summer. In addition to interactive text services, Random House's Living Language service will allow users to hear the correct pronunciation of foreign words over their mobile phones.

The goal is to create an "immersive package of content for consumers to access when and where they want," notes Random House's Titan. "Some publishers in the industry seem to think they can take existing content and squeeze it for delivery over a tiny screen, but it's about more than that. It's about rethinking content to create a compelling user experience."

(www.langenscheidt.com; www.randomhouse.com; www.vocel.com)