Short Codes Pave Way For Video Content
By Justin Pearse, Tue May 10 08:30:00 GMT 2005

Circuit-switched networks and the humble shortcode -- funny how what seems like yesterday's technology can play a critical role in ushering in the content of tomorrow.

Mobile content is supposed to be easy for the consumer, a point that often gets forgotten in such a technologically fast moving industry. Give users great content they can engage with without having to engage their brain and you're onto a winner.

Which is why the development of video shortcodes, which don't appear as the most pioneering technology, is so important. Video shortcodes have been on the way for some time now but with almost all UK operators ready to offer the facility, they are on the verge of exploding.

The shortcode has long been the most popular way to persuade consumers to get interactive on their mobile, from voting on Big Brother to receiving content via a WAP Push message. Video shortcodes dramatically extend this by enabling consumers to have video streamed to them simply by dialing a 5-digit number on their 3G phones.

"Video shortcodes are the simplest way there is for consumers to access video content," says 3 marketing director Graeme Oxby. "They enable content providers a very quick way to get into the market."

Suddenly, mobile video, a market tipped to explode, is open to everyone without the need to download players, dial shortcodes or any of that fiddly stuff that puts consumers off in the first place.

The BBC has been experimenting with this for the last few months, before jumping in to offer live streaming of the Grand National horse racing event in April, enabling people to dial in to receive the same coverage they'd be able to view on their TV screens. However, the real excitement comes with the next phase of video shortcodes -- integrating interactivity into the video content, leveraging the two-way video functionality of 3G phones.

Endemol's recent Cosmetic Surgery reality TV show took advantage of this. Viewers could call in and choose to record video of themselves to be used in the TV show, watch the live show or watch exclusive pre-recorded content.

"We're very pleased with this," said Endemol's director of interactive media, Peter Cowley. "It also means we can get viewers involved in a show, without doing a deal with a mobile operator, by bypassing their portals."

BSkyB-owned horse racing company At The Races is on the verge of going one step further, launching a service that will let punters view content from its 28 racecourses and then make a bet live, initially with bookmaker William Hill but moving to offer a portfolio of bookmarkers.

"This is just the best way to do mobile video, it's so straightforward with no need to download special players etc," said At The Races CFO Kevin Robertson.

in the 3G world, using the term circuit-switched may seem a bit of an anomaly. However, using the circuit-switched network to deliver this content -- as the user requests and receives it by making a video call -- provides a host of advantages.

"If you watch video over a video call, it has enough capacity and your bandwidth is guaranteed," says Mark Fitzgerald, MD of MX Telecom and the driving force behind the development of video shortcodes. "This bandwidth isn't shared with anyone else, compared to a shared data channel, where if there are a lot of people in a cell, net bandwidth can fall to a point where video is unwatchable."

There's another big advantage of this circuit-switched approach. A new buzz phrase doing the rounds in the industry is "bill shock" -- the shock consumers get when they receive a bill full of hefty data charges for downloading all this content being pushed to them. This is compounded by the fact that UK operators are increasingly moving to follow Vodafone's lead in dropping data charges on their own portals. Video shortcodes, on the other hand, bill by the minute, at a range of tariffs -- a charging mechanism fully understood by consumers.

"Video shortcodes are easy for consumers to understand, there's no additional bearer costs, so it helps avoid bill shock," says Vodafone head of commercial partnership sales Richard Hurring. "There will be a place for 3G data video, but this year, it's all about circuit-switched."

In fact, operators like them so much they're now also moving to offer their own content via the route. According to Hurring, Vodafone Live content should be available this way sometime soon. 3, as the first operator to open up to video shortcodes, is a jump ahead. It has already started to offer some content, such as news and comedy, this way.

"We all have a lot to learn about how to make video shortcodes very simple for the user, such as dealing with multiple menu options, but it's a good way to get people interested and it's a faster way to access content," says Oxby.

Mobile marketing agencies such as Flytxt are already talking to brands about using video shortcodes in advertising, being able to request a video of a new car by dialling the number you see on a poster, for instance, according to co-founder Pamir Gelenbe. With the two-way video capability, this will also obviously be huge for the adult market. But Marek Zwiefka-Sibley, business development director of Requestec, which delivered the At The Races service, points to a slightly more corporate use.

"Companies such as banks have special rooms dedicated to videoconferencing," he says. "With video shortcodes you don't even need to be in the same room as everyone can be seen and heard at the same time. You can even have queued conferencing where the chief executive gives his briefing to the 30 board members around the country."

Circuit-switched networks and the humble shortcode -- funny how what seems like yesterday's technology can play a critical role in ushering in the content of tomorrow.