Mobile TV in the Web 2.0 age

Ever since I spent some of the 2002 FIFA World Cup watching the first half of the semi-final on an analog 2.2-inch TV set, I've been sold on the concept of mobile TV. Since then, I've had mobile TV in the form of streaming video over a 3G network, and I'm now starting to realize that one of the things that sold me on mobile TV in the first place was that there was something on that I found worth watching at the time.

Unlike now.

Now, I'm hardly a representative demographic when it comes to must-see TV, as I barely watch that much TV. But one reason I don't watch much TV is that there's not that much on that I want to see - at least not when I have time to watch it. Granted, that's why we have DVRs, but those are for home use. Where is the mobile TV equivalent of TiVo‾

On the way, I'm told. Or already here, if you use the SlingBox Mobile, which can access your home DVR as well as your set-top box. Or if you live in Japan, where people can already record mobile TV on the SDHC cards in their handsets. At CES in January, Motorola launched the DH01, a portable DVB-H device that has recording capability, but it's not a mobile phone, so maybe it doesn't count.

Still, there are some interesting questions that arise here. For example, where should the DVR functionality be handled‾ On the device‾ In the cloud‾ Or should your home DVR be conscripted into mobile service a'la Slingbox‾ Or, perhaps more importantly, if mobile TV comes with DVR capabilities, will people bother watching anything broadcast live besides sports‾

Evolving habits

The last question is a loaded one, because the success of mobile TV standards like DVB-H, T-DMB and MediaFLO depends in large part on the idea that users want their mobile TV to be just like their home TV. As you'll recall, the initial common wisdom was that viewers wanted quick, snackable mobisodes. Now we're finding that people are prepared to watch for much longer.

Korea's TU Media says its customers log over an hour of viewing time a day. Sports and news are a big draw in Korea, but so are prime-time soaps. Score one for broadcast mobile TV.

At the same time, however, TV viewing habits are already evolving to a sort of post-broadcast model. In January CASBAA released a report conducted by digital research agency Tomorrow on mobile TV. The report listed ten factors necessary to make it a success, but interestingly, it was the 11th factor - the 'wild card' listed at the very end of the paper - that was in my view the most crucial piece of intelligence. The wild card is, of course, the internet.

Here's why that matters, the report says: 'When all media is digital and IP-based - you can no longer really think about individual screens as distinct mediums. The screen in someone's living room may be bigger than the one in their pocket - but ultimately it is part of one big interaction between consumers and content brands, all delivered by the same network.'

The report goes on to say that young Asians in particular have grown up with the idea that multimedia is fluid, interactive, mashable and shareable.

 

Asking teens whose video experience is highly (if not exclusively) informed by YouTube to accept the idea of mobile TV as a passive experience may be a hard dollar. In that sense, DVR functionality is only the tip of the iceberg.

An even wilder card could be the mobile internet itself, though the early signs aren't quite as promising. According to Ovum, the service drivers for mobile internet are more likely to be search, maps and messaging, not video. And the mobile net really needs to work out its Web 2.0 capabilities before it can start delivering the young ones' idea of VOD.

Either way, even if it makes sense to focus on straight broadcast now, mobile operators need to make sure their game plan has room for a more flexible offering down the line. Otherwise, mobile TV could well become a classic case of 57 channels and nothing on.

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