The 1% Opportunity?

Nielsen Media Research tried to send a chill down the spine of the mobile video industry yesterday by reporting how few of the people who can view video on the go actually do. In its first Anywhere Anytime Media Measurement study of remote media access, Nielsen claimed that less than 1% of content played on iPods is video.

Apparently, and in a way that should scare the hell out of wireless carriers, remote media users would rather listen than watch by an enormous margin. Even if you calculate in the obvious, that video files by their nature are fewer but longer media experiences, the video model still fails. The share of time spent with iPod video vs. music and podcasts is only 2.2%. If Nielsen's numbers are remotely correct, then the taste for portable video is as strong now as it was when the Sony Watchman was quickly forgotten in the '80s. In fact, for a real history lesson in the blistering demand for portable video, try the "History of Pocket Television" site. It seems that portable video is a longstanding solution in search of a problem.

While it may be dangerous to read iPod usage as a proxy for future mobile phone usage, that is the way many analysts are spinning this story. I certainly want to hear what Apple has to say before I decide the meaning of these numbers. Nielsen, bless its little extrapolating heart, based its declarations on a 400-person panel. But surely we have in iTunes itself more accurate metrics. Apple declared a while back that at least 45 million videos had been downloaded from iTunes since video was added a year ago. At the same time, one of the earliest and biggest suppliers of full-length films to iTunes, Disney, recently said it had sold half a million movies on the service. Most flicks are $9.99 or higher, so that already adds up to some serious pocket change for Mickey.

And before all those VCs start slitting their wrists (or their assistants' wrists) because they invested wildly in anything that smacks of mobile multimedia, it is important to consider some other numbers in Nielsen's own survey. About a third of iPods are now video-enabled, and among those owners, 11% of media consumption time is spent with video. To a limited degree, usage is following the technology. Now, I am a bit of a skeptic over the real potential of mobile video, and even I find those numbers heartening. If at this early stage of the platform, those who can watch mobile video spend 11% of their iPod time doing so, then I would regard that as a decent hunk of mindshare.

Mobilistas will argue that portable, downloadable video is an entirely different animal from over-air clipcasting and streaming mobile TV, and I would have to agree. As a veteran video iPodder, I am more of a 30-percenter when it comes to video vs. audio use. But downloading individual video shows or subscribing to vodcasts is a small barrier to use that mobile phones will not have. Also, there will be the special allure of live, high-quality streaming TV coming sometime next year as the mobile broadcast networks and handset start lighting up. Mobile video, as opposed to portable iPod video, will benefit from convenience and the familiar TV model of simply turning it on and watching,

Still, Nielsen's startling 1% figure is a reminder of one very high speed bump obstructing mobile video's march to ubiquity. "Opportunity," not availability, nor affordability, nor quality, is the real catch. When exactly do we get to watch our handheld TV? I know, I know. We will watch mobile video while we wait on bank lines and in doctor's offices or commute. This was the same scenario that was going to make mobile gaming such a hit. See much Tetris being played at the bank?

If you watch people with their phones on these lines or on trains, you see them check their voice mail or squeeze in some leftover callbacks. I probably watch as much iPod video as anyone--precisely 40 minutes a day. This is the time I spend on my exercise stepper, when I watch downloaded video and listen to audio podcasts. But surely I can't watch video when I am driving. Like most Americans, I do not use mass transit, so there are few times in my outdoor day when I don't need to pay visual attention to what I am doing. I can listen to podcasts during all of those times, but there is a small window of opportunity for watching something.

Mobile video isn't a solution in search of a problem, because it really doesn't solve any pressing problem I can imagine. It is more of a medium in search of an opportunity.

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