Surveying the Mobile Video Landscape

In late November 2008, EMG Technology, LLC accused Apple of patent violation through "the way the iPhone navigates the Internet" based on a patent that EMG was granted titled: "Apparatus and method of manipulating a region on a wireless device screen for viewing, zooming and scrolling internet content."

While the first issue that comes to mind is multitouch, the patent, according to the lawyer of one of the plaintiffs, covers "the display of Internet content reformatted from HTML to XML on mobile devices. …" Rather than addressing mobile phone browsers that actually adapt the content to nonstandard web browsers like those found natively on Symbian and Windows Mobile devices, the complaint contends that the conversion from HTML to XML is now an industry standard for phones such as the iPhone.

Finally, speaking of touch, the BlackBerry Storm rolled out in the U.K. on the same dates as Streaming Media Europe and then debuted in the U.S. just before Thanksgiving 2008. The phone has four buttons, compared to the iPhone’s one button, and the entire screen depresses, which is both intriguing and disconcerting. Regardless, with touch capability and EVDO Rev A connectivity, this BlackBerry looks poised to drive forward the adoption of standard browsers and streaming media content in the enterprise space.

New platforms
Android wasn’t the only phone platform to make its debut in 2008, although some would argue that the other major one, the iPhone 2, is just an upgrade from the first version. Ask anyone who owned a first-generation iPhone, though, and they’ll tell you that new life was breathed into the phones with multiple new options. Unlike the Windows Mobile devices that often can only be upgraded by either the mobile handset or service provider if they were bought within a certain period of time, Apple made sure that all the features supported by its hardware were available on both the new iPhone 3G and the original iPhone. This meant, for the most part, everything except GPS connectivity and 3G connectivity.

The new JavaFX, which launched in early December 2008, is a Java-based platform that’s designed to take on Microsoft’s Silverlight and Adobe’s Flash in terms of RIAs (rich internet applications). Like FlashLite, which can be used both as a plug-in for mobile browsing and a stand-alone application to modify menus and other integral elements of the handset, JavaFX is designed to be a multiscreen application and interactivity engine, especially when it comes to rich media and video streaming.

Java has been present on phones for several years; it’s often used to power games and other applications. With FlashLite eating into the handset market and Adobe and Microsoft both threatening to take their web-based plug-ins to the mobile handset, the Java approach is as much a reactive tactic on Sun Microsystems’ part, defending the company against the two major players, as it is a proactive way to push forward on the desktop. While there have been some quirks in the debut, which occurred around the time this article was written in late November 2008, they will soon be sorted out, yielding a rapid move to RIA capability for the hundreds of millions of phones that have built-in Java capability.

Indeed, one of the greatest themes of 2008, set to amplify itself in 2009 as patterns of usage and usability loop recursively more and more quickly on themselves, is that of desktop and mobile devices blending together. We see it in the mini-laptops of Acer and Asus, the InsipireOne and EeePC, respectively. We see it in the iPhone’s full-blown Safari browser and Google’s Chromeas, as well as in widgets and gadgets and all manner of applications that can be run in the cloud, on the desktop, or on the handset.

Social networking
Money for the video space, especially the mobile video space, seemed to flow in quite nicely throughout 2008. For example, live mobile video-streaming service Qik raised $3 million in April as part of its Series B funding.

Qik allows users to stream video from their camera-enabled mobile phones to a number of platforms, including a tie-in with Justin.tv to provide "mobile lifecasting." Later in the year, Mark Andreessen and Ben Horowitz both invested in the company, and Andreessen sits on the parent company’s board. While Qik started on Nokia-based phones and has signed a deal with Nokia to be preloaded on the 5800 handset, by year’s end, Qik coverage had been expanded to Windows Mobile, the BlackBerry, and Java-based phones, with the possibility of adding video streaming from the iPhone; the last remains to be seen as the iPhone doesn’t have built-in software support for video shooting.

In addition, right at the end of 2007, Juice Wireless scored a round of $6 million to take its live and near real-time mobile video recording system to the next level. By mid-year, JuiceCaster was adding geotagging to mobile videos in much the same way the iPhone 3G was adding geotagging to stills. As one report noted, users could search based on location, and they could track the videos that had been shot and uploaded from or about a particular area.

AT&T Wireless began offering JuiceCaster to its users for a fee of $2.99 per month, allowing mobile video shot on the phone to be uploaded and stored and then pushed out to Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Flickr. AT&T also offered Buzzwire, a 3G-based streaming mobile application, for a monthly $4.99 fee. Buzzwire lets users stream any of 5,000 video clips to their handsets. The service is designed for on-demand viewing of news, sports, and premium entertainment content.

Mobile screens come in a variety of sizes and resolutions. This makes it difficult for traditional content owners, who are accustomed to delivering content in just a handful of sizes and resolutions, to crack the mobile-delivery segment in a way that efficiently monetizes content without spending an equal or higher amount on converting content.

Specialized services and products have popped up, such as Avot Media’s tipPoint mobile-specific video formatting and delivery platform. Using proprietary transcoding and streaming technologies that work within handset manufacturer and Mobile Video Network Operator (MVNO) standards, tools such as Avot’s detect a user’s network type, network conditions, and device type, adjusting the bitrate of the video steam, including bitrate throttling to avoid any inconsistency in image delivery (stuttering or freezing) on the device.

Examples of Broadcasts
The Olympics was, of course, the largest streaming event of 2008. But what about the use of mobile streaming? At least stateside, NBC handled the majority of mobile streaming, as it did desktop streaming. Using dedicated mobile-video channels with its wireless partner, AT&T Wireless, NBC provided live or on-demand content. The choice of on-demand or live was the same as on the web and even on prime-time television: it was based on both time differences between the U.S. and China and, more controversially, the popularity of the content, as NBC chose to hold some content from any U.S. viewing until many hours after the actual competition in order to drive prime-time advertising rates.

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