Mobile TV Still Battles Core Conflicts

The mobile TV nut is still far from being cracked. I have been sticking with this dream from the beginning and watching the growing pains.

Curiously, the basic technical achievement of streaming live or on-demand TV shows to my handset still packs an initial WOW factor. TV itself continues to have that kind of special magic in our culture. I recall the first time I saw MobiTV running on a Windows Mobile smartphone over a 2.5G network at an exhibit more than five years ago. Whoa! That was cool. A live TV grid on my phone. But did I really want to drop into a live broadcast?

The inherent problem with mobile TV was context of use. If you only had a few minutes to drop into a telecast, you never knew if the information you wanted was showing at the time or if you were falling into one of those deadly long forced cable TV ad pods. Mobile TV, Sprint TV and others tried to answer that problem with mobile-ready pods of shorter programming in addition to the live feeds. Some of these programs were on tighter 10- and 20-minute cycles.

When VCast premiered along with Verizon's 3G network more than four years ago, it tried to use a full on-demand approach, arguing at the time that people really wanted video in small, targeted pouches, not live streams. Again the technology was impressive, but the networks and handsets still were not up to the tasks. In both cases, the early MobiTV and VCast experiences were sluggish and haphazard enough to make a user think twice and thrice before powering them up. It was very easy to forget they were there.

When Qualcomm finally rolled out FLO tv over its own broadcast channel in subsequent years, it represented an improvement in video quality, if not reception. Ironically, early mobile TV is a technological throwback to over-air TV of the pre-cable era. Back in the day, getting strong reception from rabbit ears and rooftop antenna positioning was a manly art. I still have to walk to windows or wave the damned handset around to get proper video streams or FLO tv signals. Maybe I should wrap the phone in aluminum foil. (That was an inside joke for anyone over 45.)

But even as signal issues improve, the basic puzzle for mobile television remains the interface. Almost all of these services exact an extra fee, and in order to show value the providers are compelled to add ever more content. MobiTV launched its iPhone app last month. The basic download is free and comes with live news updates from ABCNews Now and select on-demand content from NBC News, MTV, Comedy Central. You need to subscribe to the premium service, which unlocks a trove of brands, including eight live channels like MSNBC and Fox, and 30 channels of on-demand material. But this is going to cost you $9.99 a month, $24.99 for a quarterly sub, or $44.99 for six months.

Clearly the emphasis is with piling on the sense of value, and generally a dedicated TV lover shouldn't feel cheated. The technology over 3G is surprisingly good, although we still suffer pauses and buffers even in loosely populated areas. We are still waiting to warm up the telly a bit as we move from station to station, but you can pretty quickly drop into a live stream from one of the cable news networks easily. A number of the other live channels are made up of short-form comedy, cartoon and music video content. You can get a satisfying munch of drive-by content here.

On a technical basis, mobile TV keeps getting better and more fluid, closer to that instant-on TV experience. What hasn't been solved is the clutter. As services like MobiTV pour in the content choices, it just gets harder to navigate. As much as the interface tries to distinguish on-demand from live programming, the number of media brand icons piling up at once makes the distinction difficult for the user. Finding one's way back to the video screen actually can be confusing. I was running Letterman's monologue on-demand in background while scrolling through the menus of other offerings and honestly couldn't find a clear path back to the video I could still hear in background. Keeping the streaming video visible in a corner during menu navigation might be an answer to this. Overall, mobi TV has done a serviceable job with what continues to be an unenviable assignment - squeeze last century's signature media experience into this century's wholly different consumption patterns, interactivity and personalization.

But the main problem here, as with all mobile video I have seen, is discoverability. I can get to last night's CBS News if I want, but it will take some drilling. The dating of the show segments is not clear, and the availability of last night's material from the individual providers is catch-as-catch-can. My guess is that a lot of mobile TV viewing will echo online video viewing, in that we will use the device to play catch-up on missed programming. And I want to do that every morning. So make it easier for me to exercise the ritual by not making me redrill every morning across three of four programs. Now, mobi TV tries to mitigate the pain with filters for on-demand content, and this helps. But the broad-based mobile video providers like VCast, Sprint TV and mobi TV have successfully corralled a boatload of content without necessarily streamlining the experience enough for the loads they have to carry.

What we need in all mobile video is true personalization and more push alerts to drive regular use. I need to be able to designate Dave, Jon, and Rocky & Bullwinkle as the content I want floating to the top at all times. Also still missing from the equation is proper surfacing. It is very easy for a TV service to get lost in a sea of app icons, many of which deliver information more efficiently than warming up the old mobile TV and running the dial to find what you want. Put a widget on my home page that surfaces last night's TV content I want to review, and you may earn $10 a month.

The conundrum for some of these video providers is that high levels of personalization undercut promotion. If I can carve direct routes to the shows I want when I want them, then a mobile TV platform loses some of its ability to cross-promote. Since more than a quarter of network TV advertising space is still reserved for house ads of the network's own programming, this is an essential part of the TV model that clashes with the personalization models mobile video demands.

When it comes to mobile TV we are getting somewhere, but I still can't say where exactly it is we're headed in order to make a classically mass, lean-back medium fit this intimate, portable, lean-over platform.

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