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Two-Way Street: 2009 Mobile Video Year in Review

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Mobile video wasn’t invented in 2009, but many people certainly got their first taste of it this past year with the rise of smartphones and the appearance of early dedicated players. Older walled-garden subscription models with postage stamp-sized windows evaporated in favor of larger-screen, high-resolution video available for the cost of a data service account and, in some cases, a custom app. Mobile video also became a two-way street in 2009; many people uploaded their videos on-the-go, sometimes to sites that let others watch them as they happened or shortly thereafter. Behind the scenes, the industry took a great step forward, offering delivery models that made streaming easier and more affordable.

Mobile video’s year actually began slowly, with fewer than usual people attending February’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. While the global economy was sour and the crowd’s enthusiasm more muted, an extra emphasis was placed on funding at the show. Speeches addressed reduced budgets, while Adobe raised eyebrows by committing $10 million to an Open Screen Project fund to jump-start development of rich internet applications for the desktop or mobile space by providing grants to developers. "This is an effort to foster the creation, distribution, and marketing of applications," says Anup Murarka, director of partner development and technology strategy for Adobe’s Platform Business Unit. "It is a vehicle for grants; it is not a VC fund," he added.

Bringing HD to mobile devices, On2 showed off a 1080p embedded decoding solution for low-power portable devices at the show.

Apple in the Lead
One of the year’s biggest mobile video stories began on March 17 at an Apple media event. The company announced the availability of the iPhone Software Development Kit (SDK) 3.0 and let it be known that HTTP streaming would be coming to the iPhone and iPod touch when the full operating system upgrade was released in June.

Apple iPhone
Apple iPhone Apple added HTTP Streaming capability for the new iPhone 3GS, bringing adaptive bitratestreaming to the most popular mobile video device.

The move to HTTP marked a significant change for Apple and its previous real-time streaming protocol (RTSP) QuickTime streaming efforts. Streamed HTTP video has no trouble getting through corporate firewalls, while RTSP content is usually blocked. Another crucial factor for mobile devices is that Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming supports adaptive bitrate streams, which allows devices to jump to a higher-bitrate stream when more bandwidth is available and to downgrade to a lower-bitrate stream when the connection becomes less stable. With HTTP Live Streaming, the content provider can save several versions of the same file, each encoded at a different rate. Those versions are broken up into discrete chunks of video, so the device can simply pull content that’s been encoded at a different rate, if need be, without any stuttering, skipping, or buffering.

iPhone apps using RTSP streaming had already begun appearing in the iTunes Store before the SDK 3.0 announcement, including apps that offered live streaming of BBC and Al-Jazeera news. At the start, Akamai was the only content delivery network (CDN) offering the delivery of Apple HTTP Live Streaming, and it was used in video-on-demand apps such as the PGA Championship.

Mobile DTV
Market tests for mobile DTV began early this year, and the Washington, D.C., area was the first to try the new video initiative in July. The word had gotten out in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) announced that millions of viewers would soon be able to view live local content on a variety of devices. The OMVC has a formidable group of content providers and device makers, as it represents NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, the CW, and PBS affiliates, as well as LG Electronics, Dell, Samsung, and Kenwood.

To enable DTV, broadcasters need to retrofit their transmission towers to deliver the appropriate signal. DTV is "in band" service, which means that it’s bundled within the same signal that broadcasters send for standard televisions. With mobile DTV, broadcasters can potentially reach a new variety of devices, including mobile phones, portable media players, laptop computers, GPS navigation devices, and car-installed televisions. The OMVC is creating several interactive opportunities within mobile DTV, such as the abilities to poll viewers, provide custom weather reports, deliver traffic information, record the audience’s viewing habits, allow viewers to make live purchases, and show personalized advertisements.

While the initial tests for mobile DTV were conducted in several markets in 2009, consumers won’t see devices on the market until later in 2010. One early entry, a mobile TV tuner for cars that was created by Concept Electronics, went on sale in December 2009. Look for 2010, however, to be the year that Americans become aware of mobile DTV.

Apple again made mobile video headlines in June during its Worldwide Developers Conference 2009, when it announced that iPhone and iPod touch owners would soon be able to download video for purchase or rental. Previously, owners of these devices could download music wirelessly, but they needed to access the iTunes Store through their computers to download TV shows and movies. Apple removed that restriction, giving people the option of grabbing a movie just before a flight, for example, with no computer required.

Purchasing movies through a mobile version of iTunes is similar to buying content through a desktop copy, with rentals of new releases going for $3.99 and older movies costing between 99 cents and $2.99. New releases sell for $14.99, while older titles go for $9.99. The only difference is that buyers on an iPhone or iPod touch won’t see an option to purchase an HD version of titles that are available in HD. With their 320x480 pixel resolution, neither device supports HD content. Even HD movies purchased on a desktop version of iTunes won’t transfer to an iPhone or iPod touch.

The ability to purchase movies and TV shows remotely came with the release of the 3.0 version of the iPhone operating system on June 17, 2009. Videos purchased remotely automatically sync with a desktop version of iTunes the next time the iPhone or iPod touch is docked. If a user needs to stop a movie in the middle of viewing, iTunes automatically remembers that place; with this feature, the user can start watching the movie on an iPhone and easily finish on a home computer.

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