How long until the mobile is the heart of entertainment?
It'll be sooner than you think...
Comment When we first began thinking of the mobile phone as "our identity" it became obvious overnight that it was the most personal and handy portal for all entertainment services. But how long will it take until that eventuality comes about.
It's not hard to see that the mobile phone, modeled as it is more and more on the Star Trek communicator from our childhood TV shows, will take on more and more significance in our lives, acting as the ultimate personal collection of thoughts, memories, schedules, diary, preferences and an indication of just where we are on the planet.
We sometimes think that neither the cellcos, nor the handset makers get this and in the same way can't seem to interest pay TV suppliers that aren't also cellcos in the concept. Perhaps it's just that they have their minds on other things right now and they will be responsive when all the elements are in place.
But there are a handful of companies quietly working towards the day when the handset becomes synonymous with a global personalised entertainment portal, for instance chip companies like Texas Instruments which anticipates these needs it is chip designs, and some of the mobile TV software companies such as Expway and MobiTV, who want to own that portal.
Recent conversations with companies like Siemens and Thomson, both in the end to end mobile TV business, have revealed that they have a similar vision, but agree there are many steps to be taken before it becomes a reality. We'd expect Nokia, Samsung and Motorola to have elements of this on their roadmap, especially Motorola with a foot in both handset and digital home camps.
One enabler, not essential, but preferable, is that the handset needs ubiquitous internet access, and a tearing down of the walled garden that dictates that cellcos decide what the customer can and cannot have on his handset. Because if you are going to send entitlement messages, control messages, actual content, EPG data and interactivity messages to and from the handset, then access to that channel had better be open.
There are multiple ways this could happen, a universal carrier such as next generation BlueTooth or Wireless USB, can talk short range to devices in the home or at work and it might hijack wired or Wi-Fi carried broadband access from there. Or the cellular signal can be the carrier of all this information, as long as flat rate broadband access is sold.
If handsets extend our personal identities and preferences they will be used to collect content for us automatically, manage our presence settings on any device, collect together various forms of messages, audio, video and text, from multiple devices, act as a channel changer for our TV when we are in the home, and act as a command module for our DVR both in home and outside it.
The handset will be used to store huge amounts of data. Today people use their PCs as if they had limitless storage because 40GB or 100GB of data feels pretty unlimited. Miniature hard drives are set to take on phone storage capacity to 20GB to 24GB on a single drive, and real estate on the handset is shrinking so fast (we know it's an incredible amount of effort, but it is happening) that multiple drives will soon be on the handset.
This data storage could be matched by Flash memory which uses less power and weighs less, getting into the same physical space in around three years and the same cost by around 2013. This makes it a virtually unlimited carrying case for content.
You will be able to set preferences on your home DVR or your PC that download or record a particular TV series in SD or even in HD, and either download it to the handset in QVGA, or SD or HD, for viewing either on the handset, or any nearby screen, with the upload coming over the same short range carriers that will underpin the download.
In order to make that a reasonably short time to copy, then copying speeds in the order of 1 Gbps will be needed, giving an hour of SD program a copying speed of around eight seconds. That's achievable with either the new 60MHz standard from the WirelessHD special interest group, or any one of the UltraWideBand carrier types, and these could be licensed and available in two to three years.
We're not sure that this is even needed to make the handset as a control point a reality. There are other technologies, for instance the Wi-Bree that Nokia is working on, which will carry short range messages, as might existing Bluetooth 2.0.
But if we are to look outside of the handset, not only do we need to write software that can recognise anything ON the handset that is video, image, or audio and offer to display it for use, we also need to do the same for nearby devices. Now that will take some coordination and the answer is in standards here.
Set tops, PCs, TVs and hi-fi may all speak Wireless USB, but their data types also need to be recognisable, as do their metadata and XML tagging systems. As long as the consumer electronics companies continue to stick firmly to a broad standards roadmap, then this is all possible in the short term.
We can then build out an EPG that is not just a phone EPG, but a "nearby device" EPG. Each data component would be like an open broadcast web service to the handset and it would display what's on your Pay TV system, your PC, your friend's phone, on a content web site you have subscribed to, on the DVR and on your gaming systems, and MP3 players, both portable and fixed.
Such an EPG could also have hidden elements. So for instance if you decide to show your personalised hand held EPG on the TV screen, you can hold back the adult content, private pictures or anything that you don't want to have public.
The real problem here is DRM, except that it's not a problem. This entire idea only becomes politically acceptable when one company is at the heart of most of these services. So a quadruple play can offer entitlement messages delivered to any secure device, and use either a home DVR or a PC as an entitlement issuer. Entitlement messages are the encrypted keys that are sent alongside content, that will unlock it as long as your device has a key that can unlock the entitlement message.
A centralised license server for all devices types can be put together easily and no clever interoperability tricks are required between different alien DRMs.
But it's not just DRM that presents a problem here, but presentation graphics and interaction. At present there are no standards for sending interactivity messages as feedback. You might use html, but there are many other schemes currently being offered. So watching your TV and responding, perhaps voting, with your handset as if it is the remote control, with the return path through your fixed broadband link, needs to result in the same outcome as when you use mobile web to respond, or a Wi-Fi link to the fixed line or used SMS to vote.
In fact, it's better if the device decides on the route for the interaction, leaving the consumer to decide on the voting process. Of course there are thousands of scenarios to work out.
At work you don't want to display your favorite TV shows instead of your business slides using a phone and a projector. At home there needs to be a pecking order in who gets to change the TV channel or push the record button on the DVR, and that needs to be built into systems.
There needs to be defaults that say that when the handset is going to run out of storage, it doesn't try to record a film on the handset, but defaults to the home DVR.
Another service this all gives operators is audience measurement. Nielsen is the master of audience measurement, and it spends millions maintaining a monopoly in simply telling advertisers and TV channels what people are watching, but an always on handset, that acts as the controller for turning these devices on and off, and changing channel could do that automatically, for the price of some software that records and interprets control button pushes.
These thoughts always seem most obvious when visiting exhibitions with stands full of remote control devices. How anyone can consider adding more, but they do. One for each TV, each DVD player, each DVR, each music player, each VHS player.
Of course, this cannot happen in a way that makes it a detriment to the cellular operator and it has to come as a differentiator for the cellular services. After all there has to be a reason for subsidy for the handset, at least for a while longer, and that comes from a motive by the cellular operator of offering something that retains customer loyalty in the basic handset functions, even if that means continued expensive mobile voice. Our best guess is that the handset will begin to emerge as the heart of all entertainment in the 2010 to 2012 time frame.
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