Redial II: Deja Video

Irregular as the entries may be, I am trying to end this first year of Mobile Insider columns by revisiting some of the ad models and data products that started coming over the air in 2006. Nothing enjoyed more hype and less real innovation than mobile video. I have had both Verizon's ridiculously overpriced VCast and the scattered mosh pit of Sprint TV in my pocket for months, and for the life of me I never remember that I have them. Revisiting the platform after a number of months, it all seems eerily familiar. Apparently there are entire divisions of emerging media that didn't get the memo about advancing at breakneck speed.

Actually, both of the major carrier mobile video products kinda suck right now, which is why I like to forget they are there. The difference is that Sprint's Power Vision at least has the spirit of early cable TV, and chunks of it are free. Verizon's service feels more like early broadcast TV--an expensive set with too few channels.

The Sprint TV offerings have mushroomed in recent months, and its streaming works remarkably well on the EV-DO network. A recent survey by Telephia showed that the biggest consumer disappointment with mobile TV is video quality. I imagine the numbers are skewed by the many millions who try to access streaming video over 2.5 G networks, because performance is not a big issue for me. The reception is fine, at least from Sprint.

The problem is the uninspired content. I am still not sure what Fox Mobile is doing at what it thinks is the bleeding edge of mobile programming. Its "Bones" and "Vanished" mobisodes all seem like "24" to me. The narrative problem here is that you may be able to muster suspense in these three-minute segments but you can't at the same time develop character and situation enough so that those storylines really matter to us. The mobisodes all feel like disjointed movie clips that celebrity guests bring with them to Letterman and Leno.

On the other hand, Sprint gets points for giving it the old Little-Rascals-let's-put-on-a-show try with their free Power View channel of music, entertainment and sports news. There seems to be the same talking head in half of these shows (who the hell is this Chris Booker guy, anyway?), which is pretty much like MTV and CNN in 1983. Although it is more inspiring than entertaining to see Sprint try to create endemic mobile media, it has none of the Little Rascals Broadway show charm or MTV edge. Where is my Darla figure? Or my Martha Quinn? I find myself drawn more to the channels that extend the new network TV broadband paradigm with two minute catch-ups to the shows I find meaningful on other platforms.

I have had Verizon's VCast service since day one, and it still looks about the same as it did nearly two years ago. If you count up the number of discrete downloadable clips in the library, it does add up to a fair number of apparent choices, but they are in so few brand silos that you feel as if you are paying a high price for retreads of the most basic cable service you already have. Starting up the sluggish VCast is like warming up the old Westinghouse black and white set in '54. And once you get inside the otherwise excellent tab-driven media player interface, be prepared to drill several menus deep into CBS, ESPN, Nick, or VH1/MTV for clips.

Big V is cutting content deals left and right with the likes of JibJab and now YouTube, but I for one am still unconvinced that even broadband video is well-formatted for handhelds. A lot of this repurposed media is cutting too rapidly and shot too long to be involving. It feels like you are watching someone else's PC monitor three cubicles away.

I know that I am being difficult. I should be acting more like a compliant early adopter who is still gee-whiz impressed that these tech wizards can turn a phone into a TV. But I am not. That I even had to make a conscious effort to revisit mobile video shows how little the services have woven themselves into my daily media habits. One of the problems for mobile content generally is that other than phone calls and SMS messages, nothing on the cell phone demands your attention. Everything feels buried, and even the meager selection of mobile video channels already feels a bit cluttered. You have to work too hard to remember there may be programming worth revisiting, and then you need to drill the menus to find it among the dross. One answer is a media alerting system, but do I really want SMSes popping up for every new episode of all my favorites? I would be spamming myself.

This makes me wonder if mobile content needs more of podcasting's pull model that makes the phone feel more like a well-synched iPod. I watch and listen to about twenty mainstream and obscure shows on my iPod because the latest episodes are synched automatically, and they live near the surface of the interface, uncluttered by stuff I don't want. If the mobile video I most wanted were at the ready when I flipped my phone open, then I would be much more likely to slip into the routine the carriers want me to adopt. The mobile mavens love the principle of TV being in your pocket, as if that is good enough. I suspect that the medium is going to have to think harder about getting the last two feet--from being in my pocket to getting in my face.