Mobile Video, Are We Ready?

To celebrate a week full of mobile video news coming out of the 3GSM show — like word of a mobile YouTube site, Adobe’s mobile video software, Nokia’s N77 mobile TV phone, and AT&T’s MediaFLO choice — I spent several days watching videos on cell phones. Sounds fun right? Well, it was a lot more work than I thought it’d be.

I watched MobiTV on a Verizon Wireless Motorola Q, Verizon’s VCAST Video service over a RAZR V3m, Cingular’s Video service over an LGCU500, and a few mobile services from startups like MyWaves and mobile Most of the services I tested could be described as mobile video clip services, best when viewed over 3G, and available in the U.S., (so for this I excluded mobile TV broadcast and video messaging, as well as mobile devices over Wi-Fi). Overall, I’d give the combined experience a passing, but pretty blah grade, of a C+.

The problem is that the technology is just not quite there yet. Or not good enough to justify data charges, subscription charges and premium content charges. Awkward search functions, hard to watch content on small screens, fast-draining battery life and networks that are often clogged. It’s no wonder that in the U.S., M:Metrics says that 84% of survey responders said they were ‘very unlikely’ to pay a subscription fee for mobile video in the coming year.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the currently available mobile video services is the cellular networks themselves (at least in the U.S.). Getting enough bandwidth to stream and download video is one problem, but beyond that the services and applications will have to deal with a lot of bandwidth variability. There is also little room for a static video experience on mobiles from viewers educated on web-based video and TV.

The network problem is a major reason carriers are launching mobile broadcast services using MediaFLO in the U.S., or the DVB-H or DMB standards in Europe and Asia. The traditional broadcast ‘one to many’ format over mobile seems pretty boring to me (give me the non-linear Internet-style of unlimited choice and the ability to interact any day) but it will solve some of the bandwidth scarcity problems. As will networks like Sprint’s mobile WiMAX, whenever it gets built or MuniFi networks when enough handsets and networks are ever launched.

I recently chatted with DeWayne Nelon, CEO of a ‘mobile CDN’ startup called Ortiva Wireless, and he pointed out the double-edged sword of a truly mobile YouTube for the cellular carriers:

“once the mobile industry solves the content discovery problems YouTube will be huge on mobile and will be a real problem for carriers who do not have a way to manage the bandwidth consumption.”

Nelon obviously thinks there is a big market in helping out the current cellular networks for a coming mobile video boom — his startup, which was founded in September of 2004, raised $12 million from Artiman Ventures, Mission Ventures, and Avalon Ventures to sell its mobile content delivery network services. You can think of Ortiva doing what CDNs are doing for the Internet, though Ortiva’s service helps with the last link, from the transmitting radio to the receiving device.

Nelon is right, in that there will be a sizable demand for mobile video services over 3G — when some of the network, handset and search details are worked out. There’s already over a million paying subscribers for MobiTV. It’s a pretty natural fit for on-the-go short form video content.

Some of the pieces are already falling into place. M:Metrics says in the U.S. about half of cell phone owners have handsets that are capable of viewing video. Worldwide ABI predicts that in 2011, mobile TV services will have some 514 million subscribers, of which 460 million will be subscribers to broadcast services.

A lot of the mobile video news from 3GSM were important announcements from companies that will move the industry forward. Adobe is including video in its upcoming mobile software release, which could help drive a web-like video experience on cell phones. YouTube confirmed with us that they will soon launch a mobile site, in addition to its content offerings with Nokia, Vodafone and Verizon Wireless. On the mobile broadcast front, handset makers added broadcast-enabled devices, with Nokia showing off its latest N77 with DVB-H. Qualcomm won over AT&T with its MediaFLO standard and network and will launch services after Verizon Wireless does this year.

There’s also been a lot of companies releasing mobile video content recently. Some are for carrier video services like Verizon Wireless’ announcements with IGN, ESPN Mobile, and Justin Timberlake TV. Startups are creating mobile video content too, and MyWaves launched a mobile video show called Skee.TV this week.

So, this week I gave the current mobile video experience a C+. It’s OK, but right now, I’d just rather download a TV show like Lost onto my video iPod and watch it on the go. Watching via the cellular networks is just not up to snuff — yet. But I’ll keep watching.