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Surveying the Mobile Video Landscape

In the past 12 months, when it came to streaming, the mobile world expanded dramatically. Not only did Apple leverage its success to roll out the 3G version of its popular iPhone, expanding it to 70 countries, but the cyberworld also grew, as many mid- and high-end phones began to sport browsers that come close to matching their desktop counterparts.

Consider, at the outset, these facts:
1. At Adobe Max 2008, held in San Francisco in November, Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch said that there are just shy of 500 million handsets using FlashLite (the thin version of the Flash player). Adobe had originally hoped to reach this point by the end of 2009, but acceleration in the desire for rich media and mobile video sped up adoption. Adobe has restated its goal and expects, by the end of 2009, to roll out more than 1 billion handsets.
2. In the high end of the market, the Nokia N-85 and N-95, HTC Windows mobile, and, possibly, Apple’s iPhone will have the full version of Flash player in 2009.
3. Approximately 40% of all internet users worldwide have mobile internet access, with the number of mobile internet users topping 550 million in 2008; that number is expected to surpass 1.5 billion worldwide in 2012.
4. The emerging LTE (long-term evolution) technology, which may or may not contain WiMax as a portion of its accessible bandwidth, is set to debut in mid-2009, at least in the U.S. The recently auctioned 700 MHz spectrum has been tested with gear from Motorola, which expects limited network deployments in 2009, and Ericsson, which hopes to launch its own versions in mid-2009. LTE has been unofficially adopted by both Verizon and AT&T in the U.S., as both won a portion of the 700 MHz spectrum, and speeds of about 20Mbps on a theoretical 150Mbps downlink are promised.

What could we do with 20Mbps downloads? Quite a lot, it turns out. While some wonder about the validity of being able to send content to a mobile phone that can reach high-definition levels, the simultaneous move to put DisplayPort and other very high-resolution graphics adapters on mobile devices means these devices could be used to view streaming or on-demand video content that rivals Blu-ray. Verizon will launch first in the U.S., with dates expected sometime in 2009, while AT&T will hold off on the transition to LTE until about 2012.

Part of the reason for AT&T’s delay may be a global perspective. While Verizon’s current CDMA (code division multiple access) service doesn’t work in Europe, AT&T’s 2.5G and 3G GSM network meshes nicely with handsets that have multiple GSM (global system for mobile communications) radio frequencies, meaning that AT&T phones can be used abroad. If the shift to LTE happens before Europe auctions off its 700 MHz spectrum, AT&T could find its roaming agreements in jeopardy on both sides of the pond.

The reason for the availability of the long-wavelength spectrum—a transition to digital television—will take place in February in the U.S. and sometime between 2009 and 2012 in Europe. With the move of a significant number of stations to digital already, a few tests of LTE technologies have taken place around the U.S.; the rest of the stations must follow suit by Feb. 19, paving the way for the spectrum-bid winners and their partners to roll out LTE.

The Best of the Past Year
Besides this spectrum sale and the move to LTE, what were some of the highlights of 2008? And what does all this mean for streaming in a year during which YouTube is rapidly converting its inventory to H.264 to handle the YouTube mobile playback of the iPhone?

With other content being reformatted from the silver screen to the sliver of a screen that is the mobile handset, 2008 allowed "snacking" to become a new art form.

The Olympics provided a good example of content that was "snacked on" during the 3-week period in which it played. I was first introduced to this use of the term in February 2008 at the 3GSM Mobile Congress during a podcast recording with Michael Troxler, who was with NuNet at that time. In his use of the term, snacking on content meant viewing it on a mobile device between time at the desktop or TV. In essence, it is an acceptable alternative to viewing content if timeliness is important. The Olympic Games were one such case, where events that took place during normal business hours were sometimes shown in quick glimpses between larger "meals" on prime-time broadcasts.

The concept may be changing, however, coming into 2009 as mobile snacking is becoming a choice. Think of the way that on-demand content is consumed on an iPod, especially audiobooks. A user might begin to listen to the content in iTunes, then synchronize his or her iPod, listen to another portion of the audiobook on that device, and then return home to resynch iTunes and listen to the content on his or her computer speakers. In all cases, the user picks up exactly where he or she left off. This has traditionally been called "round tripping" of content.

The expansion of snacking to watching silver-screen content on the sliver screen would allow an on-demand program to be viewed first on the television (via IPTV or on-demand cable services) and then picked up at the paused point on the mobile device to continue or complete viewing. In fact, with the advent of Blu-ray DVDs, there is ample space to include an iPod/iPhone version of the high-definition main content.

The only chink in this "round tripping" modus operandi for mobile devices is the handset itself and the workflow breakdowns that new mobile phone platforms and browsers have introduced. Ironically, as the iPhone showed, in late 2008, even the desire for podcasts to be directly downloaded to the handset makes it a bit more cumbersome to round-trip content to the desktop.

With that in mind, let’s look briefly at these new mobile platforms and browsers, as well as briefly consider social networking and growing mobile-friendly broadcasts.

Mobile Round-Up
Safari, Opera, and Firefox have all been quite successful in the high-end mobile phone market. With the exception of being able to play Flash content, the iPhone’s Safari browser handles content the same way that its desktop cousin does. Based on Webkit, the browser is setting new standards for connected users to keep up with their web browsing wherever they are on a mobile network.

Not to be outdone, the Opera Mobile browser—which is the oldest mobile browser, having been launched in 2000—is installed on more than 100 million phones and has been launched on Google’s new entrant into the mobile handset space: the Android platform. As the first browser available to users of the T-Mobile G1—the Android platform’s first phone—Opera is hoping to get in early on what could be a mobile device that gives the iPhone a run for its money.

As the world moves closer to mobile browsers that behave like desktop browsers, there’s an interesting fight brewing in terms of the validity of patents around touch (one of Apple’s key features on the iPhone is multitouch gestures) and mobile web browsing.

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