Freeing mobile TV from telephony's walled garden

Cox Cable is readying its mobile network, and Sony is introducing a mobile TV-ready Walkman in Japan.

Last week, I tripped over some interesting news while I was looking for — or rather, at — something else: the 1982 Sony Watchman FD-210 on Frank’s Handheld-TV, an extensive historical archive of tiny televisions. With its 5cm black-and-white screen and ¥54,800 (about $480) price tag, the FD-210 was the first mass-produced mobile television.

It got me wondering what Sony had been up to recently — apparently, quite a bit. Last Tuesday, the company launched its NW-X1000 personal media player (PMP) in Japan. Along with all of the features techies demand — touch screen, 99 percent noise-canceling headphones, OLED screen and WiFi — the NW-X1000 features a Japanese 1-seg broadcast TV receiver. There's no word as to whether Sony will provide TV receivers for other standards when it starts marketing the PMPs in the United States and Europe.

Aside from its price tag ($400-$500), the NW-X1000 has this inexorable logic going for it: its primary design goal is delivering high-quality mobile entertainment.

And while I was pondering why the counter-intuitive TV-via-cell-phone is sucking up 99 percent of the media's mobile TV oxygen, Google Alerts sent me Marguerite Reardon's story at, Cox Readies Wireless Network. Cox Communications has dreamed of a wireless network of its own for a while, including a failed joint venture with Sprint and several other cable companies. Now the company is going it alone, and, according to the “Wall Street Journal,” plans to bundle the new services — including mobile TV — with its current TV and broadband services.

Another compelling logical development: a TV service provider extending its product to another platform.

Despite this logic, in the United States, "pocket" mobile TV and mobile TV from a TV service provider is typically mentioned in a dismissive tone. But the problem in our thinking isn't the device or the delivery channel. The problem is that we're starting from the wrong premise — namely, the closed-system model — and trying to figure out which closed system should own mobile TV.

At the same time, every day we benefit from a different model: the open model of the Internet. So why is no one considering this?

Enter aspiring industry disrupter Sean Moss-Pultz, self-described "surfer boy that ended up washed ashore in Taiwan" and CEO of the open-down-to-the-schematic handset company OpenMoko. "I challenge you to think of a single innovation except viruses in the last 10 years," Moss-Pultz likes to say. "The phone is maladaptive. Don't follow the phone. Leapfrog it."

In place of the carrier-controlled walled garden that prevailed until the federal 1968 Carterfone Act — and still characterizes the U.S. mobile TV market — Moss-Pultz counters the Internet's open model. "You can plug anything you want into the Internet and it looks just the same: servers, mainframes, supercomputers all look the same as my small notebook — they all have an IP address," Moss-Pultz said. "It's the notion of absolutely open ecosystems that generates innovation."

When his employer formed a new mobile phone group, Moss-Pultz found himself with a perfect greenfield opportunity. "It's the one thing with us everywhere we go," he said. "It knows its location. But one important thing is missing: an open system that lets people in, that lets people do interesting things with phones."

The result was the Linux-based OpenMoko mobile phone open software stack in 2007, and in 2008, an open handset schematic. So what happened? Not applications a la iPhone.

"People didn't develop applications, they developed configurations of software, integrated vertical suites for particular usage cases," Moss-Pultz said. One of those vertical suites is Communications Research Centre Canada's (CRC) OpenMokast mobile TV receiver.

OpenMoko sales grew with each step of openness — contrary to accepted wisdom. "People have many ideas, but if the system is too complex, they can't do it,” Moss-Pultz said. “If you give people the opportunity to customize something to their environment, they always come up with something that's simple and so elegant."

Here's hoping for some simple mobile TV elegance soon.

Have comments or questions about this article? Post a comment or visit our Forum and start a discussion.