What Matters Most In Mobile Video?
By Mike Masnick, Wed Oct 27 23:45:00 GMT 2004

As the discussion heats up over mobile video, sports broadcaster ESPN is going to try a different tactic -- which helps clarify some of the questions facing mobile video.

There's been a lot of attention paid recently to questions about mobile video. While some have insisted that it's the next killer app, others have been more skeptical. While there has been some limited success under specific circumstances, TV seems inherently unsuited for the mobile environment. It works on the basis that viewers are able to sit and watch programs in half an hour or one-hour segments and that they're unlikely to be interrupted. It also usually assumes little else is around that might pull the viewers' attention away from the screen. Those conditions don't necessarily match the mobile world -- especially on a small screen without the greatest resolution. So, despite efforts like MobiTV to expand its coverage, mobile TV has been anything but the killer app.

There may be much more interest in mobile video from the content creation side, where users create their own video content -- but with pricing and usability issues, most people haven't shown a willingness to embrace MMS so far.

ESPN, however, has now announced plans to get into the mobile video game, but will do so by offering video downloads, rather than streaming content. The idea, of course, is that the quality improves, even if the timeliness suffers. While this may seem like a minor point, it does bring up some questions about mobile video that not many seem to be asking. Most importantly: what about mobile video is most important to users? Is it the timeliness of being able to get live video anywhere at any time? Is it the ability to fill in the spaces between everything else that's going on with something entertaining? Is it the ability to communicate in a more visual medium? Is it something else entirely?

What's most interesting about ESPN's move is that sports is the one area most often discussed as making the case for live streaming video. It's one bit of broadcasting where people want to know what's happening right this very second. Yet, ESPN seems to be betting that people are more interested in filling in the gaps. This actually makes sense when put in context with a few other trends. Most people watching mobile video are "on the go." They're trying to do something else, and the video either needs to help them achieve what they're trying to do (for example, a training video) or help them fill up the wasted time while they're waiting for something else. On top of that, our "on demand" culture has brought us inventions like the TiVo, where time-shifting television is almost expected. Fewer and fewer television viewers watch live TV any more. In fact, a few companies have started to experiment with TiVo-like features for mobile phones, and ESPN is obviously trying to fit within that structure -- while also understanding the specific content it provides should fit into the schedule of someone who is just filling time. Of course, any discussion on downloading inevitably brings up the question of storage on mobile devices, but that's a subject for another article.