TV –> Mobile

The BBC announced this week that contrively-named Instinct (IP-based Networks, Services and Terminals for Converging Systems) is a project led by west London’s Brunel University to deliver high-quality, affordable video to mobile phones by 2010.

“It could be the teaser needed to get people to use 3G,” said project co-ordinator Dr Thomas Owens.

The project has apparently attracted £6.4 million of EU funding, so this isn’t a couple of boffins with just big ideas.

Opinion seems to be divided in the Blogosphere about whether TV to mobile is a good thing or not. Certainly, there seems to be a big assumption that this is what users want, in the same way that it was assumed (by 3 in the UK, anyway) that people want video conferencing. Which they don’t.

We’ll leave aside the huge technical and financial investment of having to install a network of transmitters all over the UK. This, on top of the £22 billion already invested in new licenses alone.

We’ll also ignore the fact that they’ll be simpler ways of watching TV on your mobile by then too. The remarkable TiVo, for instance, has just be given the OK to implement TiVoToGo – a way of transferring recorded programmers to mobile phones, among other devices.

For the sake of a cogent argument, I’ll even overlook the fact that the reason why 3G hasn’t taken off so far is mainly down to 3’s appalling marketing and shoddy technology. It’s nothing to do with potential users saying “Hmm, well I would buy one of those ugly phones from 3, which my mates tell me don’t work very well. But then…sigh…it doesn’t even have TV for pity’s sake! How lame can you get?”. More on 3 here and here.

But the debate is: is TV on the mobile something that users really want?

Mike Masnick over at The Feature puts the case for the devil like this:

There still isn’t much evidence that people actually want TV on their mobile phones. Those involved with this project, however, seem to simply assume that it’s obvious that everyone must want TV on their mobile phone. The article claims that TV broadcasts to mobile phone solves two problems: (1) bringing together TV and the internet and (2) creating a compelling application to drive 3G sales. Both of those are problems from the corporate side, not the user side. If the solution doesn’t solve problems for the end-users, it’s not going to solve problems for anyone.

While the article goes on about how efforts to combine the internet and TV have failed, no one seems to question why that happened. They simply assume that, for no clear reason, trying again in a mobile environment will correct whatever problem caused every previous effort to fail.

Which I have to say, was my initial reaction.

But then I read Russ Beattie’s blog (albeit about MobiTV ie live TV vs streamed clips) and I paused for thought:

Let me say that MobiTV to me is *still* more compelling even though it’s at a slower video frame rate. Why? Because it’s *live* television, not 2 minute clips. You can rip through the 5 or 6 clips on Sprint’s CnnToGo menu in just a few minutes and you may not be interested in them all, so you stop them half way through and run out of video to watch sooner than it seems. Unlimited access to broadcasted video is key.

The next step will be on-demand video for my phone. When I can get all my TiVoed videos from home to play on my mobile? Forget it. There won’t be a single game of mobile Tetris played ever again.

The Feature is playing devil’s advocate about “Mobile TV.” Who wants it, they ask? Me for one, but I’m sure as many people as currently own a television will too.

Hmmm. It’s a difficult one indeed – though I think I can say that the EU are just wasting their £6.4 million in this case.

I’m still of the opinion that video to mobile (as in viewing video clips – not the absurd video conferencing) is going to be a very important feature of mobiles. But I don’t think that we’ll see a great demand for “traditional” broadcast TV programming (live or recorded) viewed on the mobile.

Viewing on mobile tends to be done when we’re doing other things, for a start – traveling, waiting, killing time. So, being able to focus on a programme for 1/2 an hour at a time – on a regular basis – seems unrealistic. Plus we have ever-shortening attention spans, that certainly don’t lend themselves to this type of viewing on the move.

The other issue is “Where’s the money?” or perhaps less flamboyantly, what’s the business model? Sure, I can see that transferring the video from another source (like TiVo) makes sense, as it’s essentially free to view.

But if you transmit directly to the mobile, someone has to pay – presumably the user. And if mobile content generally is any guide to price, this isn’t going to be cheap viewing. Sure, in the abstract, maybe it would be nice to tune in to TV when I’m bored. But will I pay $1 a minute for the privilege – I don’t think so!

TV for all generations has basically been about free (or very cheap) entertainment, not a premium-priced service. So why would this change just coz I’m seeing it on a little bitty screen on the move?

So despite what the other Russell says, I tend to favour the TV/video model of short, made-for-mobile clips (say, 5 minutes tops). Or programmes specifically designed to be viewed like that – maybe like the typical news/magazine programme today. But TV that hasn’t been reformatted for the mobile viewing experience? And priced as a premium service? Nah…

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