First there were TVs. Then came PCs. Now, mobile phones are becoming
the 'third screen' for viewing video.
By Gregory M. Lamb | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Mobile phones once wanted only your ears; now they're after your eyes,
too. By delivering a variety of viewing options -- video games, music
videos, clever ads, news, weather, and sports -- the littlest screen
may have the biggest of futures. Already, cellphones serve as a third
screen for some consumers -- along with their televisions and
computers. Because it's always with its user, some think the cellphone
could become the most important of the trio -- the first source for
entertainment and information.
Plenty of questions remain, of course. Some are technological, such as
the need to beef up battery life to power heavier usage and to employ
bandwidth more efficiently so that the system doesn't jam. Others are
financial: How much will subscribers pay to watch something on a tiny
screen? If phones eventually can share video with other users, can the
content be designed to prevent unauthorized sharing?
Still, the promise of a new viewing audience is luring everyone from
manufacturers to content providers.
"We're at the very early stages of [producing] what could be pretty
interesting" video for cellphones, says Larry Shapiro, an executive
vice president at the Walt Disney Internet Group, the online arm of
the Walt Disney Co.
So-called third-generation (3G) mobile phones, which transmit data at
much faster speeds than today's 2G digital phones, will open up the
prospects for better content, Mr. Shapiro says. Already, 3G games on
phones "are equivalent to Game Boy Advance quality in terms of
graphics and richness."
For advertisers, phones represent new opportunities to reach
consumers. For mobile-phone companies, video and other data offer new
revenue streams as increased competition for cellphone customers
squeezes profit margins.
Third-generation phones are already in use in Japan, South Korea, and
Europe. In Germany, mobile-phone giant Vodafone announced this month
that it had sold 411,000 3G phones there since they were introduced
late last year. Though that represents just 1.5 percent of the
company's German customers, they bring in 4 percent of total sales
revenue. The company aims to have 10 million 3G customers in Germany
by next March.
In the United States, mobile-phone companies are in the midst of field
trials of 3G phones with the expectation of broad deployment in the
next year or two.
Better video will be one of the chief advantages of 3G. Worldwide,
about 25 percent of all digital TVs sold in 2010 will be in the form
of mobile phones, predicts a report last month from Strategy
Analytics, a consulting firm in Boston.
Meanwhile, "for younger consumers, cellphones are already the third
screen," says Avi Greengart, principal analyst for mobile devices at
Current Analysis, another consulting firm. They're being used for
everything from text messages to downloading ring tones and playing
"Their phones go with them everywhere," Mr. Greengart says. "They've
grown up with these devices. They expect them to do just about
anything. And they're willing to pay for additional services --
certainly to a much higher degree than baby boomers."
Mobile phones aren't going to replace TV or computers, but they will
become a complementary source of media, says Dan Steinbock, author of
the new book "The Mobile Revolution" and a researcher at Columbia
University's tele-information institute in New York.
The quick, widespread adoption of cellphones has led to some
optimistic projections about their future, he says. But so far they
have been used in concert with existing media, such as when TV viewers
used their cellphones to vote for contestants on the "American Idol"
It's likely that cellphone video may be used to deliver short bursts
of information, which in turn will cause people to seek out a TV or
computer screen for more extended viewing.
That's been the strategy so far in Asia, where short-form video, in
one- to five-minute bursts, has taken off among 3G phone users.
While standing in line at the ATM "you might not want to watch an
entire episode of 'Seinfeld,' " Greengart says, "but a 2-1/2-minute
standup comedy routine could be compelling." Some companies are
creating serials told in one- or two-minute episodes. Dubbed
"mobi-sodes," they are suitable for viewing in a spare moment, such as
waiting in a supermarket checkout line or at a dentist's office.
A video-equipped cellphone can be a mobile baby sitter, too. "I can
tell you there's nothing better than sticking 'Sesame Street' in front
of a 5-year-old," Greengart says.
As for what Americans can watch on their cellphones, Sprint offers
Sprint TV, which includes programming from Fox News, Fox Sports, the
Weather Channel, ABC, and other sources. Some of it is identical to
the televised version; some is specially adapted for use on
phones. The Weather Channel, for example, prints its text larger in
proportion to the screen size than on TV to make it readable.
Early video on phones has been herky-jerky - "a slide show with
audio," acknowledges Dale Knoop, manager for multimedia services at
Sprint. But even before the arrival of 3G handsets, quality has
greatly improved, he says. Sprint now sends its video at about 15
frames per second; a conventional TV signal sends 30 frames per
Two Minute Television is offering short original programs like "Genius
on a Shoestring," "Adventures in Speed Dating," and "News with a
Punchline," asking users to watch ads instead of pay a fee. SmartVideo
Technologies, which is distributing the programming, claims a current
rate of 15 to 18 frames per second. With 3G, that will rise to 24
Early signs from overseas indicate video-phone viewers have little
tolerance for conventional ads, Mr. Steinbock warns. Advertisers must
be entertaining or risk the wrath of viewers. "You don't want to turn
on your mobile device just to be turned off by 10 advertising
messages," he says.
Another cellphone development that could draw viewers: video
projectors. This fall, Mitsubishi Electric will introduce its Pocket
Projector. About the size of a digital camera, it attaches to a mobile
phone. Using three advanced light-emitting diodes (LEDs), it can
project the incoming video image onto a wall or desktop at sizes up to
40 diagonal inches.
To extend battery life, a consumer will probably turn it on only when
he or she needs to display a big screen, as when playing an online
video game, says Ramesh Raskar, a scientist at the Mitsubishi Electric
Research Laboratories in Cambridge, Mass.
The device can also be attached to other mobile devices, such as DVD
players or digital cameras, to let a group of people see a movie or
snapshots more easily. Eventually, the projector may shrink enough to
be built right into the phone.
In the end, though, what people will want most is a reliable way to
communicate, Greengart says. "Does it have a camera, does it have a
music player, does it have videos, is it a PDA [personal digital
assistant], does it make me a sandwich? All those things are nice," he
says. "But it has to be a phone first."
Look who's snapping up cellphones.
Three-quarters of the world live within range of mobile-phone
services, but only one-quarter actually subscribe. Now, that's beginning to
change, especially in Africa.
. The fastest-growing mobile-phone market is Nigeria, where by
mid-2003 the number of mobile phones had grown 143 percent in a single
. It took 15 years for Britain to see mobile phones outnumber
wire-line phones; it took Zambia five.
. There were 6 mobile phones for every 100 Africans in 2003, a
far smaller ratio than for Europeans (55 out of 100), Americans (49),
or Asians (15). But Africa has twice as many mobile phones to
wire-line phones, a ratio no other continent can match.
. A group of mobile-phone networks is pushing manufacturers to
come up with a $30 mobile phone for the developing world. Earlier this
month, Philips Electronics said it would deliver key electronic
components that could push the price below $20.
Sources: PC World; Vodaphone
www.csmonitor.com | Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor.
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