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RealTime IT News

Mobile Video: The Last Eyeballs

It's the end of attention.

The few crumbs of spare attention anyone has left over from the barrage of daily media will soon be eaten up by "video snacks," little chunks of content delivered to cell phones to fill those awkward moments when no one is calling, texting or e-mailing us.

On Thursday, SmartVideo Technologies announced a content deal with Two Minute Television, a production company that specializes in entertainment for teentsy attention spans. The two companies will offer a free, ad-supported mobile TV channel featuring shows like "Adventures in Speed Dating."

SmartVideo takes broadcast-quality video and transmutes it for the small screen. It plans to let users subscribe directly while also offering the service to content creators and mobile network operators. The SmartVideo catalog includes programming from ABC News, NBC Universal, Fox Sports and The Weather Channel.

"It just depends on who wants to own the subscribers," said Richard Bennett, SmartVideo CEO. "If we're working for the telco, we act as a content aggregator, and provide that content into their network. If we're working for a content company like a major studio, we would manage their content library and distribute it to subscribers directly."

Bennett said that in the last nine months, interest in mobile content has caught fire. "It used to be incredibly difficult to get content creators," he said. "Now, we get 50 to 75 audition reels a day."

That interest is fueled by what ABI Research says could be a $27 billion business by 2010. But ABI analyst Ken Hyers said that money would be spread around more than in today's mobile data market.

"Initially, we'll see Sprint, Verizon and eventually Cingular powering some of these one-to-one video services over the network, [with] the paradigm we have now," Hyers said. But the delivery model will move to one-to-many digital broadcast networks, much like regular TV networks, with content streamed to devices.

"Once the digital broadcast networks come on board, you'll see 10 to 12 percent of wireless customers signing up by 2010," he said. They'll pay $10 to $15 a month for all-you-can-eat video; Hyers thinks $10 a month is the real sweet spot in terms of getting subscribers. The telcos will sign deals with the companies that run digital broadcast networks, but do the billing themselves, so they can control the customer relationship, Hyers said.

This fledgling business is already adding up to more than chump change.

Sprint just announced a deal with Warner Brothers Online to launch "Looney Tunes and Friends." The mobile video channel is now available on Sprint PCS Vision Multimedia Services. Sprint's streaming audio and video services went live in August 2004. Verizon launched its VCAST service in January 2005. The $15 subscription fee includes unlimited Web browsing and specially tailored programs from major media including NBC, News Corp. and 20th Century Fox. According to Hyers' estimates, Verizon has around 450,000 video subscribers, each paying $15 a month.

PacketVideo, a provider of supplier of embedded multimedia communications software for mobile phones, powers the handset software for the VCAST service. The company has waited for mobile video to take off since before the turn of the century.

Joel Espelien, PacketVideo vice president of strategy, said the operators' moves to faster networks have finally made cell phone video possible, while smart phones with memory enabled the move from browser-based mobile content to all-in-one applications for finding and viewing video on the phone, an experience that's more acceptable to consumers.

"We have faster networks, and the devices themselves continue to march along, better, faster, cheaper. We're now capable of doing very nice video on phones," he said.

With mobile phones our constant companions when we're out, and the TV the audio track of our home lives, it seems inevitable that TV should follow us out the door.

"Mobile TV is part of the whole on-demand world we're moving toward, where I want my information anywhere, any time," said Michael Tchong, trendspotter and founder of the marketing company Ubercool. It plays into several current and emerging trends, Tchong said, including time compression, personalization and what he called "control-freaking."

Tchong sees a big future for mobile video advertising. "There's a lot of upside potential for on-demand infomercials as well," he said. "The information or advertising provider will pay the carrier fee. The subscriber will get the equivalent of a toll-free number to call."

Bennett of SmartVideo agreed. "Long-term, we think ad support is going to be the predominant method for getting it out there, replacing the subscription models," he said. He said the company had signed on several mainstream brands for its free channels, whose names he could not divulge, including beverage, sports apparel and clothing manufacturers.

But the prospect of a populace of walking couch potatoes is daunting. Will we be able to talk to each other at all?

Jacqueline Whitmore, author of "Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work" and Sprint's cell phone etiquette spokeswoman, said mobile TV will only add to the attention deficit she's already seeing. While the tiny screen is even more magnetic when it's playing video, she said, "It boils down to common sense: The person you're with should take priority over the telephone."

Whitmore did have one special pointer for kindly mobile video junkies who don't want to jar those around them with the honks of Daffy Duck or the whaps and cheers of the NBA Playoffs: "Wear an earphone!"