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Will the revolution be televised?

Questioning the assumptions about the future of mobile video

Let's face it - for the most part, the countless pundits who try to gaze into the crystal ball and guess at the future of consumer technologies don't have a great track record. Hotly tipped sectors like WAP services turned out to be about as appealing to consumers as last week's leftovers, the much vaunted convergence revolution is in tatters, and the biggest mobile trend of all in Europe - text messaging - completely passed most industry observers by until it was already old news.

Certainly, we get some things right; more functional phones have certainly started to displace traditional PDAs, for example, although some might argue that it's more a case of basic phone hardware being built into the PDAs than phones getting more powerful. However, even now there are sacred cows being slaughtered, with the apparent consumer apathy towards Motorola's admittedly crippled but nonetheless hyped ROKR phone seeming to suggest that the day when mobile phone music decks will replace iPods in people's pockets is rather further off than the optimistic pundits had hoped.

With that in mind, consider another thing which is being confidently predicted across the industry right now - namely the ascendance of mobile video, with TV and sports video feeds being tipped heavily as the very future of our mobile phone devices.

In fact, confidence in mobile video is so strong that it's arguably having an adverse effect on the mobile gaming industry, with operators leaping over to video like an unfaithful married man who's just been propositioned by a supermodel. Mobile gaming is a sector which has already been through the difficult genesis of over-promising and under-delivering, and has started to show real growth, real results and real profits. Mobile video, all concepts and curves, is promising the earth. Can it deliver?

Even within the games industry, there's a strange reluctance to wave pointy objects even in the general direction of this sacred cow. A hushed acceptance seems to fall over most discussions on the subject. Mobile video is the future, everyone opines in one voice. Mobile games are an important sector but they're niche next to video. It's the Vodafone mantra, the mantra of pretty much every operator in the business in fact - but where's the proof?

In fact, never mind proof; such a thing can't exist, since we're talking entirely about the speculation of pundits here. What we'd like to see, more than anything, is a line-up of consumers happily pronouncing that what they really want is the ability to download TV episodes and watch them on their mobile phone on the bus. We want to see punters - the real, everyday, ordinary people who ultimately pump in the cash that feeds the entire mobile industry - choosing to carry headphones with their mobile phone everywhere they go, and paying a premium to watch low-quality video on tiny screens. We want to see people explaining where, exactly, they plan to do this - since they're hardly going to do so when walking down the street, as they'd rather prefer to keep their eyes on the pavement, and the average episode of a television series isn't quite the 30 seconds or five minutes of fun that's promised by the average casual mobile game, either.

Ultimately, as consumers ourselves, we want to understand what exact benefit mobile video is meant to bring to our lives. Downloading ten second clips of Premiership goals or one minute highlights from Big Brother may have mass market appeal, but is forty minutes of Eastenders or two hours of King Kong really ever going to be downloaded to a handset and watched in such a way?

"Nobody bets against television," a prominent mobile industry speaker (we're sorry - his name escapes us at present) told a large audience in London recently. We beg to differ. The videogames industry has been betting against television for years, and as the astonishing phenomenon of the "Lost Boys" in North America proves, it's a bet that videogames are winning. Male teenagers and young adults are switching off the cable box and turning on the games console in unprecedented numbers. On a device which is clearly far more suited to the simple interactivity of the right sort of games than it is to the goggle-eyed experience of television, is that bet really any more risky?

We're not saying that mobile video can't be a success - after all, it would be breathtakingly arrogant to assume that we know any better than any of the other pundits who so often call the wrong direction on this industry. But we'd like to hear a little less reverence directed at mobile video, and a little more thought about what constitutes a real, minute to minute consumer experience with a mobile device. It's not that the sacred cow needs to be slaughtered; we just need to realise that it's merely a cow like any other, and fight the seemingly established logic which says that the mobile gaming industry must play second fiddle to sector which has far, far more to prove than anyone seems to care to admit.

Rob Fahey is the editor of MobileIndustry.biz

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