This Time It's Personal: The Mobile Video Wars Commence


Back in the earlier parts of this decade, we digerati watched the broadband penetration numbers like hawks. We not only haggled over whose "broadband household" numbers were correct, but even over what bandwidth constituted "true broadband." We awaited high-speed access to achieve a "critical mass" that would then propel many business models like online video, gaming and VoIP into viability. To some degree this proved true, but I think that the habit of accessing digital video habitually tended to trail bandwidth a bit.

For me and others I knew, the early bad experiences with online video stuck with us well after the technology had improved. I recall being pleasantly surprised several years ago when I realized that embedded Flash clips, my bandwidth, browser efficiency and content distribution networks had all slowly but surely taken away the longstanding hiccups and delays that made me think two or three times before pressing that video play button at a site. The technical progress had occurred before I was aware of it, and then it took a while to get accustomed to the fact that video online now was an instant-on and relatively smooth operation.

Mobile video is likely not to get the benefit of that consumer lag time. The bar has been set high both by online experience and the wireless companies. Consumers will be ready to vault that bar (or smash up against it) much sooner than they did online. Now that the major carriers are boasting about their real or imagine "4G" capabilities, and using video as a leading attribute of that speed, millions of mobile customers will bring to their handsets an expectation of video performance. In 2011 60% of wireless network traffic will be video content, according to projections from ByteMobile, which supplies network management products to 125 operators in 60 countries. In 2010, video accounted for 40% of traffic. Of course, we are talking bandwidth share here, not the share of people engaging in video content. How habitual mobile video viewing becomes likely has something to do with the kind of performance people experience on their handsets in the coming year.

But this time, it's personal. ByteMobile also says that the overwhelming majority of video activity across wireless networks will involve personal communications. Video chat via services like Skype or iPhone's FaceTime will be the leading form of video traffic, and the company predicts this means that only 10% of subscribers will account for 90% of overall network traffic.

To be sure, programmed media will be a part of this as well. As we all mentioned last week, YouTube is reporting 200 million video views a month coming from mobile handsets. But it seems to me that everyone is setting the bar fairly high for mobile video performance and highlighting video as the lead selling point of 4G. T-Mobile is already chiding Apple for its WiFi-only FaceTime capabilities, and several handset and carrier brands are touting playback of major motions pictures in hi-res. YouTube itself just released a major upgrade of its app for Android platforms, complete with featured VEVO music vids and a very inviting interface that encourages video browsing.

One has to wonder if this is a high wire (less) act on the part of carriers. We have already seen one major brand become the butt of late night jokes for its real or imagined dropped calls. As we have discovered in all other aspects of mobile media, people take this platform very personally.

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