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The State of Mobile Video 2016

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In an era where miniaturization is the holy grail of consumer technology, one device is bucking the trend: your smartphone.

With screen sizes on the rise and an outsized amount of streaming media content being consumed on mobile devices, it’s pretty clear that your phone is going to grow in both size and stature for overall consumer (media) satisfaction.

2015 was a transitional year for streaming media, and we’ve seen some key trends in mobile streaming delivery: video consumption demand, smartphone size, and operating system entrenchment.

Throughout 2015, smartphones swelled to even larger sizes across the board. Users, not surprisingly, consumed more video, fueled partly by the growth in screen size. Oh, and in case we forgot to mention it, Apple and Android fans alike continued to entrench themselves in their chosen mobile OS ecosystems (or prisons, for those who don’t jailbreak their phones). Through it all, mobile network operators have had to hurry to keep up with demand. We’ll talk first about how they’ve done that in 2015, then cover the topics mentioned above before coming back around to see what’s in store from a technology standpoint in 2016.

Demanding More, and More Demanding

To handle the growing demand for video, mobile network providers are adding more capacity. Some of this is done by enhancing the underlying technologies—think of the updates most smartphones have delivered in terms of long-term evolution (LTE) and faster Wi-Fi specifications, such as 802.11ac—and some of it is done by acquiring more spectrum.

In the past 2 years, both T-Mobile and Verizon have rolled out a 700Mhz spectrum, a relatively low frequency compared to other U.S.-based mobile network operators. The lower frequency allows both greater capacity and reach when it comes to the distance between a cell tower and a user’s mobile phone.

Even more than the spectrum play, which saw Verizon agree to end the practice of locking subsidized smartphones for a multiyear period, the advent of more advanced versions of LTE brought larger capacity gains from the tower to the mobile device and back again. Coupled with the continued development of dense-wave division multiplexing (DWDM) on the fiber backhauls from the tower to the mobile video network’s internet gateway, the use of LTE allows consumers to view content at very high data rates.

And those high data rates are necessary for content delivered in 1080p to cellular-equipped Apple iPads and Android tablets, as well as a host of smartphones that now sport 1080p screens. With 720p streaming video clocking in around 2.5Mbps and 1080p at more than twice that data rate, there’s a need for speed to match the growing size of screens.

So just how big are these smartphone screens compared to a few years back? Quite a bit bigger.

Grow, Smartphone, Grow!

Last year’s Sourcebook article on the State of Mobile included a discussion on the “rise of the phablet” as a transitional category of devices that fall somewhere between a classic phone size and a small tablet size. Today, the meaning of “phablet” is less clear than ever.

Nearly every top smartphone available by the end of 2015 was in the range of what was once considered “phablet-only” territory. Both of Apple’s iPhone offerings (the 6S and 6S Plus) are larger than 5". Samsung almost singlehandedly created the concept of a phablet, and it has remained fairly steady with its Galaxy Note line, opting to include a 5.7" screen.

Samsung’s Note is joined by both Motorola’s Moto X Pure (Style outside of the U.S.) and Google’s Nexus 6P (by way of Huawei) in having nearly 6" diagonal screens. However, the list of top-rated smartphones includes nothing with a screen smaller than 5.1" (the size of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the S6 Edge). You’ll note the absence of any mention throughout this article of other mobile operating systems, as their continued decline or stagnancy makes them continually irrelevant in most considerations.

While Apple devices made up 49 percent of holiday 2015 activations, the iPhone 6 Plus rose 14 percent over last year. Even the late-to-the-game Apple lovers are getting on board with the oversized screens.

These ballooning screen sizes aren’t simply about having the biggest phone in the room, especially when it comes to video consumption and creation. The screens are being implemented well with extremely high pixel densities and resolutions. While the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge take the crown for highest density of 577ppi, both the Nexus 6P and the Note aren’t far behind. Plus, all share a whopping 2560x1440 resolution.

While the screens aren’t quite 4K resolutions, the combination of pixel density and arm’s length-or-less viewing distance makes the user experience comparable, and we expect pixel density to grow even more with announcements that will be made at February’s Mobile World Congress trade event in Barcelona.

Vertical Is the New Black

It’s not just the pixel density that’s growing; so is the trend toward shooting video in portrait or vertical mode, enough to make any cinema purist bluster about the end of the world as we know it.

When 16:9 HD television sets first made their debut, many early adopters were hell-bent on replacing their video library with “widescreen” versions of their favorite films. Those same cinema purists, ironically, probably never saw the vertical video trend coming.

With smartphones as the de facto video content creation device, the tendency to record in portrait orientation is tough for many to resist. The temptation to hold these oversized hunks of glass vertically is overwhelming when trying to capture the latest cat video or “I-ate-all-your-Halloween-candy” practical joke.

There are several logical reasons for why this abhorrent trend continues.

First, consider this statistic: 29 percent of a user’s day is spent using a smartphone or tablet in portrait (vertical) mode. Five years ago, this number was only 5 percent as most content—from webpages to apps to video—was delivered in a widescreen format.

In other words, with so many tablet users orienting their devices vertically, the opportunity to capture or view vertically recorded content is simply much greater than it was not very long ago. Add to this the fact that vertical is the standard for most smartphone usage, and the fact that screen sizes have continued to grow, meaning that the horizontal real estate in portrait mode has grown with it to give greater breathing room for keyboard typing and similar interactions.

In short, there’s just less need to turn the device horizontally.

One study by Snapchat has found that vertical video ads in the ephemeral messaging app have a 9 percent higher completion rate than their horizontal cousins. That reduces the psychoanalysis of vertical versus horizontal down to a matter of convenience. Users are operating their device in portrait mode and don’t want to be bothered to turn the device and wait for the accelerometer to change the orientation only to reverse the process a few seconds later. Whatever the reasons for it being “a thing,” or whatever misgivings one may have with it, vertical videos are a genuine trend that must be considered when designing content for mobile viewing.

Ecosystems Aren’t Just Made for Mobile

According to Ericsson’s November 2015 Mobility Report, around 80 percent of Android and iOS users remain loyal to their chosen operating system. While the fact shouldn’t surprise most, the numbers are enlightening, as is the fact that switching operating systems makes a difference when it comes to content creation and consumption.

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