Funny Business
By Mark Frauenfelder, Thu Jun 28 00:00:00 GMT 2001

On the short list of miserable feelings, boredom ranks right up there with pain and nausea. People will do almost anything to relieve the sense of fidgety dread that comes with having nothing to do.

The last time I was in the waiting room at my dentist's office, the other patients had snagged all the good magazines. I didn't bring a newspaper or book with me, and I left my Palm at the office, so my options were limited: I could either sit in my chair for 20 minutes and quietly go out of my mind, or browse through a dog-eared copy of "Dental Practice & Finance" magazine. I chose the magazine, and while it was still pretty boring, it beat counting the holes in the ceiling.

There's a definite need for lightweight disposable entertainment that can be consumed between meetings, while traveling, while waiting in line, or in other "transition" situations.

Often, people can fill in the gaps of a life-on-the-run by buying a magazine at a nearby newsstand, finding a newspaper on a bench, or starting up a conversation. But what about those times when nothing like that is available? Now that millions of people are carrying mobile phones with them wherever they go, one company has set up a wireless entertainment network to solve this very problem.

Pocket-sized portal

Leading the charge is a Canadian company called Airborne Entertainment, which was co-founded by Charles Sirois, CEO of telecom company Teleglobe, Andy Nulman, the former CEO of Montreal's Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, and Garner Bornstein, the former CEO of a Web development firm called Generation Net.

Airborne Entertainment is producing entertainment-based information that wireless operators can sell as premium content to mobile phone and wireless PDA users. It's recently launched PocketBoxOffice, billed as "the world's first micro-entertainment network," offering the portal in two formats - one for mobile phone's tiny screens, and the other for Palm and Pocket PC displays.

Initially conceived as a time-filler (the company used to describe its service as "replacing slack time with leisure time") for people to amuse themselves while waiting in line, or while stuck between meetings, PocketBoxOffice offers jokes, trivia, quizzes, horoscopes, fashion news, and movie reviews.

Airborne Entertainment President Andy Nulman says he's discovered that PocketBoxOffice users are using the service not only as a time-filler, but as a destination, in the same way they'll "look at a snack, or a trip to the water cooler. They say, 'I'm going to spend a few minutes on my mobile.'"

Most of the offerings on PocketBoxOffice are the digital equivalent of those tiny comic strips that come with pieces of bubble gum. They're short, and don't require much thinking to process. PocketBoxOffice delivers a dozen theme-based channels, such as TheFunniest (humor) and CraniumCrank (puzzles and trivia), which were created especially for the network, as well as famous old-media standards such as Dear Abby, Doonesbury, and Fashion Wire Daily.

Pay to play?

Launched last year on Canada's Bell Mobility and Clearnet carriers, and on the United States' Bell Mobility, ATT, and Sprint PCS networks, PocketBoxOffice has hundreds of thousands of users worldwide, according to Nulman. So far, PocketBoxOffice reaches 80 percent of the US market and 100 percent of the Canadian market.

Currently, users don't have to pay to access PocketBoxOffice's content, but they won't get a free ride forever. "We find ourselves very close to the cable model," says Nulman. "We will offer a free trial to have you take a look at, but then the carriers are all instituting a payment plan of some sort." Some carriers will begin charging in July, others will wait until fall. (Prices haven't been determined yet.)

As the creator of the world's first and largest comedy festival, Just For Laughs, Nulman has worked with the likes of Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jim Carrey, and has produced over 150 TV programs around the word.

Nulman now believes that he can bring his knowledge and experience into a new arena, one that's different from TV or even the standard Internet. "I've been in the entertainment business my whole life and very rarely do you get virgin territory. That's what we see here. Our partners aren't showbiz people," he says of the wireless carriers who have signed deals with the company, "but they are starting to understand the replication of the cable model."

Unlike the Internet, which has no built-in micropayment system, wireless carriers can simply tack a premium use bill right onto a subscriber's monthly statement. For content providers who've been itching to come up with a way to make money on the Internet, a subscription model is a dream come true. "What's great about this compared to the standard Internet, is that here is a business model, and the carriers are working with us because they understand that the more compelling these services are, the greater the chance they have of reaching into the consumers' pocket to get them to pay for using the stuff," says Nulman.

A recent estimate from the U.S. Department of Commerce and industry analyst IDC projects that the global entertainment market will be worth US$155 billion by 2005, one third of it coming from wireless applications and services. And the carriers are starting to wake up to that, says Nulman. "A year ago, there wasn't a carrier we spoke to that was talking about working with us in terms of helping us make money. A lot of carriers thought they would charge us for menu positioning. Now it has completely changed, and they say 'let's find ways we can all make money.' This whole industry has changed."

The biggest success in this area so far, of course, is NTT DoCoMo's i-mode cellular service, which launched in February 1999 and boasts an incredible 22 million users in Japan. With over 1,600 i-mode sites (and over 40,000 3rd-party sites), users can send and receive email, shop online, order tickets, log into their bank accounts, and access all types of entertainment such as games, horoscopes, and character and ring-tone downloads. Users are charged for the amount of data they receive, not the time spent online, and very little data is sent during a typical transaction, making it enticing for users to use the service frequently.

The average i-mode subscriber accesses eleven sites every day. "What we've learned from i-mode," says Nulman, "is that everyone can win - there's no one who holds the big end of the stick. The carrier makes its money, and shares very generously with the content providers. The content providers are able to develop applications and content. And people out there have an incredible selection of content that is innovative, fast, unique, and fun."

I-mode is a somewhat different story: it's a monopoly and NTT owns i-mode. But, "all that aside," says Nulman, "you see what happens when you treat the customers and the content providers well. Everyone enjoy the value added all the way up and down the chain."

Hazards of bite-sized humor

Airborne Entertainment employs 23 people, and has hundreds of freelancers and independent developers all around the world. The in-office workforce is split evenly between business development, technology, and content creation.

So far, the offerings on PocketBoxOffice look promising. The programs that provide users with instant feedback, like the "Would You Rather?" quiz are fun because you can find out how many other people chose the same answer as you. (Example: Would Your Rather "have Cindy Crawford as your personal sex slave" or "an unlimited supply of fudge?" Big surprise: Cindy got 96.11%.)

The repurposed content, such as "News of the Weird," work well in the micro-browser format. And, in June, PocketBoxOffice introduced three new channels devoted to golf, food, and politics.

It's tough to be funny. One person's idea of humor is another's idea of idiocy, banality, or even sexual harassment. It's even tougher to be funny when you are creating content for a new medium.

It wasn't easy for Airborne Entertainment to teach people how to create content for PocketBoxOffice, but Nulman says that they've found some of their best creatives among the ranks of young people who have grown up using wireless devices. "I call them wireless creators. They see and understand wireless. It's easier to develop that from within a wireless marketplace than taking a journalist, or a comedy writer, or a game maker and telling them, 'take everything you know and make it much smaller, much quicker.'"

The company is committed to creating new content made especially for the medium, and wants to avoid simply repurposing content from newspapers or radio. "What we are looking for is people who know what it means to be mobile, the way people need to be treated when they're on the road, and the way things work in a wireless application. People have just a short time to interact, they want to get things quick, and they want short bursts of information. This is a new way to be entertained."

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.