I Want My MTV
By Justin Ried, Wed May 16 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Mobile TV, that is. UMTS networks promise the bandwidth needed to deliver video-on-demand to your device, but not the applications themselves. So who?s developing them?


The battle for market share between media players on the desktop PC has been narrowed down to three contenders: QuickTime, Real Player and Windows Media Player. The applications ready to rumble on your mobile device, however, aren’t nearly as easy to spot.

A new delivery platform introduces a large number of changes. Those who’ve been able to dominate yesterday’s desktop have little or no advantage when the new devices share neither the same operating system nor the underlying hardware. PalmOS, WindowsCE, and Symbian’s EPOC are all well positioned to take over the handheld platform – and the transition is creating a number of opportunities.

The new platforms require a ground-up re-write of the application, creating a rare chance for many small developers to get a foot in the door. Many of them have already recognized the potential of the new medium and are hard at work readying their products for broadband. Here are three - one for each platform - to keep an eye on.

ActiveSky


One player making headway in the mobile market is Redwood City, California’s ActiveSky. Formed in 1999, the company’s ActiveSky Media Player has quickly become a leader on the Palm platform.

ActiveSky faces however one very serious challenge in its efforts to get video running smoothly on the platform: Palm’s relatively slow Motorola Dragonball chipset. This chip, designed to save battery power and not for performance, makes it difficult to produce any real watchable video on the device.

Nevertheless, the company has been able to develop an application that squeezes out every bit of performance it can. To achieve this, they use a proprietary media format that optimizes the bit rate and decreases the processor's load.

The result isn’t really what I’d call video exactly, but more like a long, slow-moving .gif animation. Of course, there’s no sound or color to enhance the experience, but those are Palm's hardware limitations and can’t be blamed on the application. What may be more detrimental to the application is its proprietary codec – the very thing that enables it to perform on the Palm may just make it too difficult to transition later on to a general-purpose player.

Unlike other players, ActiveSky’s can’t take advantage of the advanced compression and networking capabilities built-into MPEG4 video. As such, I wouldn’t expect it to remain popular long after devices with more horsepower become available. MPEG4 seems tomorrow’s clear market leader – and ActiveSky’s living on borrowed time with a player that doesn’t support it.

PacketVideo


Today’s biggest player in the mobile multimedia space is San Diego, California’s PacketVideo. Founded in 1998, and with support from Intel, the company has quickly established itself as a leader - having been the first company to demonstrate MPEG4 video streaming to mobile devices at the GSM World Congress in May of 2000.

Building on their momentum, the company released their PacketVideo player application (called PVPlayer) for PocketPCs last year and resultantly enjoys the lion’s share of today’s market. The PVPlayer uses the sophisticated processors embedded in today’s PocketPCs to decode video at 10 frames per second and beyond – much easier on the eyes than the ActiveSky player.

They’ve also developed a handy transport utility called AirZip, which allows users to share video files between their mobile device and their desktop PC. Want to watch that episode you’ve got stored on your desktop’s hard drive? No problem – just plug your PocketPC into the desktop, then format and transfer the file for viewing later on.

PacketVideo has also been actively developing an interesting portal application called AirView. When launched, this application will query the network for available channels, which it then presents to the user. A simple tap on your channel of choice starts the stream.

Real Networks


Here’s one to bet on having an impact. This desktop juggernaut is making its way onto mobile devices using its already successful Real Player 8 desktop application. Real Player 8 has been ported to EPOC, and delivers beautiful video at variable bit-rates on the relatively weak 52Mhz ARM chip inside the Nokia 9210 Communicator.

Thus far, the only significant downside I’ve noticed is the inability to play any media encoded with the older proprietary Real Player codecs – only Real Player 8 files seem to be working. This might at first appear strange, because the new generation of Real Player 8 codecs are the most processor demanding. Older codecs (such as Real Audio 2) were designed to run on older, slower PCs and should be no problem for the device.

However, this might be a non-issue. If the application retains the same plug-in-based architecture that its desktop counterpart has, it may just be a matter of downloading the new codec from Real’s website and installing it. If that’s the case, this player has a serious leg up on its competitors, since it can evolve over time with the market – adopting newer codecs such as MPEG4 when they become publicly available.

Rapid transformation


When we were first sold on the dream of the mobile Internet more than two years ago, we all had grandiose visions of what life would be like with a connected mobile media player in hand. Instead, we ended up with Internet Junior - an 8-line grayscale display with no media capability built-in whatsoever.

But that’s changing fast. With newer networks upping the data rates and color HTML browsers appearing on our phones, it’s only a matter of time before multimedia applications round out the terminals – making them viable replacements for laptops on the go.

With a mobile phone in one hand and a mouse in the other, Justin Ried writes about mobile technology for TheFeature.