Commentary

Enough Video, Already

As I was holding the Samsung Instinct at countless angles near my third-floor window to maximize signal strength, the '70s flashback hit me. I had been here before. Trying to get TV reception at a hippie college on a Vermont mountain in 1978 was just about this tough. Positioning the TV near a window, getting that old FM T-antenna thumb-tacked to the ceiling in just the right configuration, was a ritual that separated the humanities bumpkins from the science dweebs. Generally, the best technique was to hand one end of the T-antenna to the most stoned kid in the room (purely a judgment call at a Vermont hippie school in 1978) and tell him to stand "over here for a sec." You could get through a few SNL skits before he caught on. "Are we going to Brattleboro for munchies or what?"

Perhaps I am in a bad zone for video services from all three major carriers. But here in 2008, I am experiencing early-TV-era reception woes as I start this series reviewing mobile video. Just getting a solid signal from the 3G networks and even the MediaFlo services is proving difficult. The coverage maps for Verizon, AT&T and Sprint suggest I should be in solid territory -- but here I am, nevertheless, hugging the windowsill, lifting my handsets above my head to watch some mobile TV. In 1978 it was snowy screens and vague shadows of John Belushi's rotund figure. Now poor reception means Campbell Brown frozen with her eyes half shut, or a green pixel hash with a sound track. Clueless stoners are a little hard to come by nowadays, and I am not sure they would do me much good in a post-analog era, anyway.

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I have had mobile video in some form on review units for about two and a half years, but it is only in recent months that I started using it with any regularity. Performance and navigability remained the biggest deterrents from everyday use. By the time you find the video brand you want and then drill into folder after folder to find the clip you want, and then wait for the signal to hit and the buffering to stop, you've already spent almost two minutes of interface time to render a two minute video experience. Worse, the limited labeling of each VOD clip means that you might not end up with what you wanted to begin with. While mobile programmers and networks may like to think their customers at heart crave video over all other formats, I think most of us make this tiny cost/benefit calculation before we engage a mobile service. Until recently, the ratio did not favor frequent use.

Ironically, the very thing that carriers do to "enhance" their video offering, add more content, only worsens the cost/benefit problem. Sprint has a rich menu of offerings, impressive from a business standpoint. ABC, CNN, Nick, Fox, E!, MTV, and a whole lot more are all here. Some have streaming video of their live feeds along with a complement of VOD clips of shows. If you can figure out the distinctions among "Live," "Now," and "On Demand," you might be able to find breaking sports scores, weather or news, but we are in a stage where labeling and common mobile nomenclature is more disorienting than clarifying from a consumer perspective. The choices are overwhelming at this point, and the amount of drilling needed to locate a clip gets worse as the offerings expand.

We need a richer clip description as well. One of the things that the doomed MVNO Amp'd got right was a dual-pane interface that popped up a thicker description of a highlighted clip. Reviewing the content itself is almost fruitless at this point because it is so diverse (full episodes to one-minute jokes) that it defies easy summary.

I am going to spend the next couple of weeks with mobile video form the major providers, but a couple of points float to the surface from the get-go. On the hardware/OS side, users need to surface specific content to the home page as a Favorite for one-button access. "Daily Show" clips, sport scores, news headlines, etc., have to be on the home page. Sprint has got it right on the Instinct, where you can tap video networks or individual clips and tag them as Favorites that are available on the surface of the OS.

The problem is a lack of clarity over what I am bookmarking. Content providers need to title and brand their programming in ways that telegraph to the viewer what he is getting. I want to know that my Favorite for headline sports or news is clicking into the latest video clip with fresh content. It is not always clear to me in this nest of menus and folder what shows are giving me mobile updates of their topics.

While many people will want to spend ten or twenty minutes wallowing in video folders, many of us want to access two minute market, sports, celeb, headline updates. Finding those resources in this pit of Megan Fox, Lesbian? clips is a chore. On cable I know what local "weather on the 8s" means and what "Headline News" means, and that these resources make it easier for me to snack productively on TV. The same is not true yet of mobile video, even though this is the platform where it is most needed. Right now the carriers are just piling it on and piling it in, as if volume will convince consumers of the medium's value.

Utility, not mass, is what will convince me to use a technology I have had on my phones for two-and-a-half years, but couldn't be bothered with.

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