Making Entertainment Portable

After promising fixed/mobile convergence for the past several years, the high-tech wizards have finally delivered. When you get home tonight, you will record your favorite TV shows, zap them into your telephone and take them with you wherever life may lead.

Okay, maybe you won’t. But you can. The technology now exists in the commercial marketplace, and analysts say it is the beginning of a new convergent era.

“We have been talking about this kind of stuff forever,” says Mike Wolf, principal analyst at ABI Research. “Now we are really starting to see cool products that allow you to do real entertainment networking, beyond just the PC-to-PC networking.”

Wolf describes most of the “convergence” technology to emerge in recent years as being largely introverted, designed to connect consumer devices to the home network. Mobile entertainment represents a new generation of convergence, he says, giving consumers the ability to convert their premium content into a portable format.

Wolf points, for example, to Sling Media‘s Slingbox, which pulls programming off your television and drops it onto the Internet, thus making it available to the user virtually anywhere. Got DSL? You’ve got American Idol.

“Now I can sit in Tokyo and watch my Seattle Mariners program,” Wolf says.

Orb Network offers a similar service, routing home TV or cached PC media content to distant PCs, handhelds and even cell phones.

Wi-Fi will play an increasing role as such services expand, Wolf predicts. He points to Motorola services that make it possible to transfer TV content to a mobile phone. It’s a USB transfer today, but Wolf says such exchanges will likely occur via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in the near future. He notes that Sling’s mobile phone application already can use either of these enabling wireless technologies.

Consider the possibilities. Access your own or a friend’s cached music in streaming format on your cell phone. Tap your TV via your portable PlayStation and bask in SpongeBob between bouts of Grand Theft Auto.

“These are cool applications, very much early adopter stuff,” Wolf says.

The information can flow the other way, too, with consumers managing their home entertainment using their mobile devices. In a deal with Verizon, TiVo is making it possible for consumers to program television recordings directly from their mobile phones. “It’s still entertainment, but this is more of the control aspect of it,” Wolf says.

Wolf also points to Linksys‘ new mobile router, which enables the merging of mobile and home networks by allowing multiple PCs to connect to a Wi-Fi network and access a mobile high speed EV-DO network. Wolf says such solutions make it possible to merge all of one’s various content and devices.

Wi-Fi may be the only mechanism capable of taking an enormous volume of entertainment content out of the home and transferring it to mobile media. Without Wi-Fi, Wolf suggests, the necessary capacity might not be available.

“If a million people bought a Slingbox and decided to use it on their cell phones, that would be troublesome,” Wolf says, pointing to experiences in Korea, where the massive consumption of bandwidth by video apps has been wreaking havoc with mobile networks.

Left to their own devices, wireless carriers may not be too anxious to see their networks gobbled up by Survivor reruns, and as the keepers of the keys, “a wireless carrier can be very controlling,” Wolf says. “It becomes a question of how open they are to letting people use their mobile phones for something other than being kept captive in their particular network.”

Wireless carriers could help to resolve the issue by making Wi-Fi airtime available and affordable. In fact, Wolf suggests, consumer pressures may force just such an evolution. “People aren’t going to want to spend all that money on a Wi-Fi enabled handset and then not be able to use the Wi-Fi applications,” he says. “And I don’t want to be charged air time every time I make a Wi-Fi connection.”

In some cases, the role of Wi-Fi in the fixed/mobile convergence food chain may be easily assigned. T-Mobile, for instance, operates in both the cellular and Wi-Fi realms, and would thus be a likely candidate to help speed convergence. Other carriers may be slower to get on board, but in any case, Wolf says, “Wi-Fi is going to play a big part.”

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