Count on Rupert Murdoch's empire to hedge its bets, or more precisely to be ready for whatever happens in the emerging "mobile video" world. Its multiplatform pursuit reflects both the enthusiasm for transmitting video to handheld devices and the potential for developing new sources of video content for those portable receivers.
The frenzy of activity also reaffirms the uncertainty about which mobile video platforms will survive and/or thrive.
Murdoch's MySpace online social network recently began allowing its members to watch videos from the National Hockey League, National Geographic, TMZ (the celebrity gossip site and TV show) and other video suppliers via their mobile devices. In addition, MySpace users can now see, on their handsets, the homemade videos from other members' pages.
GATEWAY TO THE INTERNET
While this MySpace initiative is unfolding, Fox Television—another Murdoch enterprise—is supporting the Open Mobile Video Coalition, which is accelerating its plans to use the digital TV broadcast spectrum to beam TV shows to a handset. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, OMVC demonstrations featured shows from Fox Broadcasting ("The Simpsons," "American Idol," "24" plus local news and weather) and also Fox cable news programs, including "The O'Reilly Factor," "Hannity and Colmes" and "Fox & Friends."
In its multipronged assault on mobile video, Murdoch's News Corp., like other media behemoths, is preparing for whatever the fickle mobile audience wants to see—and how they want to watch it. And mobile is certainly the way to go. As the Pew Internet and American Life Project pointed out in a study released in December, by 2020 wireless devices will be "the primary means of connecting to the Internet for most people worldwide." Pew's "Future of the Internet III" study deemed that the combination of portability and affordability will make the handset into "the leading Internet gateway."
News Corp. and other media companies with broadcast and Internet stakes are not alone in juggling mobile video opportunities. LG Electronics recently unveiled a 60 Mbps chip for mobile smart phones that will enable speeds up to eight times faster than today's connectivity. These 4G (fourth generation) microprocessors represent a great step toward the 100 Mbps speed that is planned for the "Long Term Evolution" technology being planned by some mobile carriers (of course, LTE faces a marketplace battle against WiMax, another 4G technology.)
The still image is from the Qubo Channel, a multiplatform entertainment destination. The mobile chip initiatives of LG, like those of Samsung (which is currently backing WiMax) and others, add more evidence that suppliers are staking claims in every sector of the mobile video world. The hardware suppliers—in their familiar role as arms merchants, supplying any and all providers of mobile content—are preparing for whatever succeeds in the broadband wireless environment.
Meanwhile, other mobile video options are surfacing. Sling Media's new version of its "SlingPlayer Mobile" service for BlackBerry allows BlackBerry users who have connected their handset to their home set-top box to access their premium home channels via their mobile devices over a Wi-Fi or 3G wireless connection.
It is too early to declare any winners in the race for mobile video dominance. The OMVC approach, targeted to reach the market by year's end, may satisfy many viewers, but the Web-obsessed generation can just as comfortably use handsets for video coming from other online aggregators and portals. Such video delivery will exploit the relationships that viewers have with MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and countless other sites—relationships that may be far stronger than an allegiance to TV broadcasters.
AN INCREASING DEMAND
OMVC's Executive Director Anne Schelle voices confidence that mobile viewers will rely on familiar sources, such as their local broadcast TV channels.
"We've done a lot of research that shows people want what they see at home," Schelle said.
But she acknowledged that, "It's a little early to talk about aspects of the programming."
One content attributes that the Web generation clearly adores is ondemand access. OMVC is working on an on-demand capability, and Schelle cites the "Electronic Service Guide" as a "very robust" tool that will allow access to some "nonreal-time services." Specifics about those broadcast features—and the business models—are still being developed. OMVC members are also looking at feebased, as well as free mobile TV offerings.
For now, OMVC's strongest point is the video quality that its technology can deliver. Schelle describes the scalable video codec as "layered" to provide "compelling high quality video." Again, that video quality depends on the capabilities of mobile handsets as well as on the broadcast stations' digital transmission and the source video material.
For viewers, Schelle's most important word may be "compelling." It is unclear what will compel the fickle and as-yet barely tapped audience who will watch video on a portable handset. Will they favor familiar TV fare—including news and sports—or will they be more interested in the short-form user-generated content of the Web?
NEW VIEWING STYLE EMERGES
From the lineup of content that OMVC partners demonstrated during CES, broadcasters are ready to serve a smorgasbord of familiar shows: "Ugly Betty," "Grey's Anatomy," "Saturday Night Live," "90210," Gossip Girl," "Squawk Box" and music performances plus local weather, news, sports and traffic reports. Undoubtedly, soap operas and other broadcast fare will be added to the roster.
Many of those video segments are available via networks' or stations' Web sites. Portable smart phone users are already grabbing them when they want. Some comparable material is available via QualComm's MediaFLO, another competitor in the mobile video race.
One fascinating finding from early MediaFLO users may offer a clue about early adopters' evolving viewing styles. Viewers create their own, unexpected, ways to consume mobile video shows. MediaFLO found, somewhat to its surprise, that customers tuned into shows in nonsequential segments. For example, viewers watch a half-hour show in several five or 10 minute increments—a few minutes on the way to work or at morning coffee break, another chunk at lunch time, and the rest of the show later in the day.
That kind of customized viewing is great for an ultra-personal access device, such as a mobile handset. However, its ramifications for advertising, bandwidth optimization and other business purposes remain to be considered.
All of this means that broadcasters—like other media purveyors and hardware/software suppliers—have a lot to learn about how customers will pick and choose, let alone embrace, the expanding options for mobile video.
Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications Inc., a new media research firm in Bethesda, Md. He can be reached at GaryArlen@columnist.com.