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Vodafone's Orb trial - the worms under the walled garden?

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Is this the beginning of the end for the telco's walled garden? Vodafone's German operation has launched an experimental service that may, if it's successful, usher in a new era of thinking for the cellular operators.

Vodafone MeinPC uses Orb's software to allow 3G customers to access the photos and MP3s that reside on their home PCs. More interestingly, it will also permit subscribers to watch TV that's being captured on their own PC, and transmitted across the cellular network.

We can imagine some heated meetings taking place at network operators around the world, where this experiment will be watched with interest. Carriers are keen to cash in on the video downloaded model being touted by Apple, which they view as an impertinence. Infrastructure vendors, particularly Nokia, are keen to push DVB-H (or in Qualcomm's case, MediaFlo), a lightweight, over-the-air digital TV streaming technology, that doesn't use the 3G spectrum. Neither camp will particularly welcome Vodafone's initiative. Then again, Vodafone is simply giving the punters what they want - access to their own stuff, plus TV. And that makes both DVB-H and the 3G download clips look a dubious proposition.

At one end of the (no pun intended) spectrum, Hutchison's 3 network offers dozens of services each with a price tag. It can even sell you user-generated video clips (SeeMeTV - "try not to swear too much") for up to 69p a clip.

Orb's veep of marketing Ian McCarthy asked, rhetorically, why in the year of YouTube, carriers thought they could charge for this. Nevertheless, and not surprisingly, he sees it as a positive sign that the carriers are looking for ways out of the walled garden.

"It shows that the carriers don't want to be stuck in the old way of thinking. The stupid thing is to pull a CompuServe, which in the early days of the internet didn't let you access the web at all," he said.

"Vodafone knows that it owns the relationship with customers, and needs to find ways that are more valuable than ever - so they'll figure out how they want to offer it once the experiment is over."

The experiment continues through to the end of September, and is available to any Vodafone Germany subscriber with a 3G handset, from which they can get started on the go.

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