Legends of the small screen

30 Mar 2006

For a week in the middle of February this year, Barcelona became the centre of the universe for the mobile phone industry. The annual 3GSM trade show and conference upped and left its traditional home in Cannes and decamped to Spain.

For a show that is normally about such mundane topics as switches and billing systems, this year’s event was more akin to a media festival in Las Vegas or a dotcom shindig circa 1999. Regular attendees such as Vodafone, Ericsson and Nokia now rubbed shoulders with the likes of Disney, MTV, Channel 4, Google, Skype and Microsoft. The media, telecoms and technology industries were truly coming together in Barcelona. Welcome to a converged world.

Amongst all this convergence, I was struck by two things: firstly, media companies are more obsessed with the medium rather than content for mobile; and secondly, the advent of Wi-Fi on normal mobile phones is about to open a can of whup-ass on the traditional voice business of carriers.

After my umpteenth meeting with media executives who pulled out flashy devices and showed me a clip of their latest TV/film/reality show on mobile, I was left with one lingering thought in my mind: “Guys, make content for people, not for devices.”

All the big media companies seem obsessed with “getting their product on mobile” and “getting into the space with existing assets” rather than really thinking about commissioning content that works and content that the audiences wants. I believe that these big companies should put a fraction of their sizeable resources into stimulating producers and screen professionals into really thinking about this medium and creating content for a mobile audience, rather than trying to sell us a trailer for Desperate Housewives or a meaningless ‘mobisode’.

Every new medium has had to define itself in terms of what content works best on it. TV found soap operas in the Fifties, cable TV found MTV, sports and 24-hour news — now mobile must find its killer content. So, it is important for content producers to think beyond TV and major movies, just as Ted Turner did with CNN and Chuck Dolan with HBO, for the burgeoning US cable networks in the Seventies and Eighties. The ‘CNN’ for mobile content is ready to happen, so let’s hope it is soon.

We’ve had Wi-Fi in phones now for a while, but this has been really confined to certain smart phones such as the Nokia Communicator 9500 and various specialised handsets such as the ones from Zyzel and Linksys. This all changed in Barcelona, with the introduction of a number of regular mobile phones sporting Wi-Fi. The most notable of these was the Nokia 6136, a phone which Nokia claims will “unify GSM and Wi-Fi connectivity”.

The other phone of note was the i-mate SP5, a phone which runs Windows Mobile 5.0 and full Wi-Fi. I saw this phone with Vodafone branding, so we may even see it here soon. These two phones are leading the way and we can expect to see a lot more coming out this year.

The big deal about Wi-Fi in mobile phones is twofold: VoIP (voice over IP) and content delivery. Having access to VoIP from a mobile phone could dramatically reduce the cost of phone calls. For example, Irish company Cicero was showing off a VoIP client on the i-mate phone that could connect to most major VoIP providers. Using this and, say, a provider such as Blueface.ie, a user could have unlimited worldwide landline calls for €24.99 a month. Of course, this would need the user to be in or near a Wi-Fi hotspot, but as the number of hotspots grows, this becomes easier. Expect to hear a lot more about this in the coming year.

The other area which Wi-Fi on mobile phones will affect is content delivery. At the moment, rich content such as videos and full-track songs can only really be supplied by the mobile operator. As these files have large data charges the operator is able to absorb this charge into the price. It is not really practical for a third-party content company to charge €2 for a video, only for the user to be charged €3 on top of that for data (although this has been tried!).

Wi-Fi in mobiles would allow users to connect and download content from the net. While there are still Wi-Fi charges, these tend to be time-based and not related exactly to the size of the download. In Ireland, both Vodafone and O2 offer Wi-Fi services to their customers — these new phones may cause them both to have a very much renewed interest in the area.

BY Stephen McCormack, chief executive of mobile content firm Wildwave