Mobile Video Getting Some Quantity, But Not Necessarily Quality
By Carlo Longino, Fri Apr 01 21:45:00 GMT 2005

Heavyweights Microsoft and Sony both made news about mobile video this week. While the backing of companies like these gives the idea a boost, both might be missing the point.

Microsoft this week announced its MSN Video Downloads service, which for $20 per year lets users of Windows Mobile devices download and watch videos from a variety of content providers. Sony made the news after a comment from a Sony Pictures exec that the company wants to create an "iTunes for movies", including releasing movies on flash memory cards for mobile phones. Clearly both companies see the mobile phone as a suitable platform for mobile video, but they're both missing the point for different reasons.

The Microsoft got a lot of press as a service for mobile phones running the company's OS, but it's really not a mobile service -- it requires users to download the video the want to a Windows XP machine, then sync their device to the PC. But even if it were able to be accessed over a mobile network, the real problem here is the content. There's the requisite news and stock updates from MSNBC and CNBC, some sports content from Fox, comedy clips, and -- wait for it -- "videos about home improvement, crafts, hobbies, indoor-outdoor living, and kitchen and bath remodeling" from the DIY Network, and "selected programs featuring remodeling, home-building, design and decorating, kitchen and bath to enhance a home's curb appeal". Just the kind of stuff people want to watch on their mobile phones.

It's unfair just to single Microsoft out for this, many mobile video services and portal offer similarly uninteresting content. The problem is this: while these types of clips might be exciting or interesting at first, just because mobile video is something new for people, but this stuff is far too boring to build a long-term business around. This isn't stuff people would pay to watch online -- they're not likely to want to keep paying for it on their mobile, either.

The point is that users won't accept for long any old content just because it's mobile, and there will be little interest in this sort of haphazard mobile-specific content. What will deliver eyeballs and users is offering people access to their own content. What's more compelling and something you're more likely to pay for? Watching a video explaining how to unclog your toilet on your way to work in the morning, or watching a recording of your favorite show you recorded on your DVR last night?

Sony's problem isn't likely to be a lack of interesting content: it says it will make its top 500 movies digitally available. Its problem is distribution, hardly a surprise given the company's success in the digital music space, and the focus on physical media for mobile devices.

First, physical media is dead for mobile devices. It defeats the point of putting content on a mobile device if you have to carry it around on a bunch of memory cards or discs or other physical media. The content needs to fit on the device itself, or on a user's memory card with their other applications, or be accessible over the network.

But the real issue here is just how Sony, which doesn't have a glowing record when it comes to DRM or the attitudes of its content bosses when it comes to technology, implements the plan. It wouldn't be surprising for them to make the movies available only on their proprietary Memory Stick cards, but even that's mostly irrelevant. The underlying (MPAA-backed) premise is that consumers need to purchase a new physical copy of a film for each type of device they own -- something that consumers aren't likely to take well to.

In an advanced media device landscape, formats of data will be meaningless to consumers. When they buy a film on DVD, they see it as buying the movie, it just happens to be delivered on DVD -- a view Hollywood doesn't really share. So if a user buys a movie on a Memory Stick for their phone, and decides the small screen doesn't do it justice and wants to watch it at home on a TV, they'll be expected to buy a copy on DVD? That sounds like it will go down well. Similarly, if someone buys a movie or TV series on DVD and wants to watch it on their phone, they're expected to shell out for the mobile-specific copy? Not likely.

The main problem here is that Sony (like other studios and record labels) sees content as a physical good, but CDs and DVDs and vinyl and downloadable files aren't content. They're just a means of distribution. Music isn't the CD on which it is sold or the MP3 it's downloaded in; movies aren't the film on which they're printed or the DiVx file in which they're encoded. Consumers are already beginning to blur the lines between their media devices, with things like mobile music and TiVoToGo, which offer a beginning glimpse of flexible, device-independent media content. When this is commonplace, consumers will demand their content in a high-quality, flexible format that works across multiple devices. The idea that content is tied to a single device simply won't fly.