Commentary

A Little Video Will Do Ya

You have to give Amp'd credit; it's got balls. In a wireless industry where bland is the norm, this MVNO is diving headfirst into some new and interesting territory when it comes both to self-promotion and service design.

With more than $150 million in VC-gorged coffers to feed the branding mission, Amp'd is papering our consciousness with edgy TV spots that recall the provocateurs of the dot-com heyday. And like the Pets.coms of old, this bold adventure in creating a new digital brand out of whole cloth is already being dogged by rumors of disappointing performance, unconfirmed whispers about only 5,000 to 22,000 sign-ups so far.

I have no idea whether Amp'd will be a pioneer in a new style of wireless service or a poster child for DotCom Crash and Burn, Part II: The Wireless Years. It is a little too tempting to call Amp'd just another overfunded pipe dream of the second digital gold rush. Just try the phone for a short while and you will see that there are some interesting ideas on deck.

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The most striking addition to the ordinary cell phone interface, and the one most important to marketers, is the integration of streaming video with the menu structure itself. When you drill into the Amp'd Live section of the phone, where all of the content lives, the screen is divided between a top video window and a familiar scroll of menu choices on bottom.

The interface is very cool, animated and sleek, but it is the video that adds a new dimension to content discovery. When you pop into the main Live menu or one of the major content buckets (games, news, entertainment, etc.) you automatically get a 5-second video clip in the upper window that promotes either one of the branded content partners or educates the user about a feature, like high-speed mobile Web browsing (Amp'd uses the Verizon 3G EV-DO network).

The downside of these ubiquitous video intros is that they are, well, ubiquitous, and you may be looking for a disable button after a few days of this. For instance, whenever you go into an area with a video promo, the clip plays twice in a loop. I am guessing this approach is a deliberate attempt to ensure the message gets through, even though the user may be preoccupied by thumbing through menus. It is a curious technique that actually works because the clip is so short. The odds are you probably weren't paying attention the first time through.

Of course, the technology gets tiresome because it is smart without being smart enough. Every time you return to a menu from another area, you get the same two-clip loop replayed. I have now unintentionally memorized the Prince of Persia game pitch (I'm still not buying, however). And I haven't figured out what the hip-hop clip in the music section is about, who the singer is, or what exactly it wants me to know or buy. Amp'd has a tendency to assume you are so hip, you don't really need descriptions or labels.

I may be making too much of this, but I am a bit more enthused by my glimpse of a video window atop a deck menu than I am about most of the mobile TV and on-demand mobile video I have seen. These promo videos pop up quickly enough that they seem part of the interface.

Meanwhile, I probably could hunt down a live TV on 8th Ave. in the time it takes Verizon's VCast to lock and load. When the video clip is contextually relevant on an Amp'd menu, it really does have the effect of stamping a game or band in my head as I browse. It can illustrate a phone feature more effectively than any cell phone manual and even entice you to use it. For the content providers and co-marketers partnering with a wireless firm like Amp'd, it immediately becomes much more valuable real estate than simple deck placement. It has to be more effective than a pre-roll.

And to be sure, I am teasing out just one little feature from Amp'd that I find especially intriguing. Otherwise, the service has a long way to go. The number of server errors I experience when trying to access and download content is inexcusable. Nevertheless, its novel phone interface opens up new ideas about video that get us outside of the existing mobile TV models, multicasting and clipcasting, and helps us think about using multimedia to improve the entire mobile experience.

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