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CTIA 2008: The Walls Are Crumbling…

In fairytales, things usually happen in threes. At CTIA 2008, I espied three trends that promise, if not a fairy tale ending, at least a major game change in the future of mobile usage in the U.S. The evidence was everywhere that the garden walls surrounding the carriers’ pick of content for mobile users is still there, but crumbling. Hastening the inevitable, broadband mobile Internet made a strong showing at CTIA, proving its inevitability. Lastly, the number of companies pitching easy ways for Internet content creators to “mobilize” their content was amazing. Since I’ve been a big proponent of all three of these directions for the mobile content market, I had a happy time at the show.

Let me just draw attention to a handful of the companies I met with and a few of the items that caught my attention. First, one of the stars of the show was RIM’s new clam-shell Blackberry Pearl 8220.

new Blackberry Pearl

new Blackberry Pearl 8220

I’m perfectly happy with my Blackberry 8830 World Edition, but if a clam-shell Blackberry rocks your world, more power to you. And the new Blackberry does have quad-band support so it’s a world edition too.

I also had a fun time in the Yahoo booth where I got their new voice search application downloaded to my Blackbery. It’s a lot of fun to play around with, although it can’t always make sense of what I say (and that’s probably not the application’s fault), I can easily correct what appears in the browser. For the free download, go here.

QuickPlay Media is all about trying to make the mobile internet experience successful, says vp of marketing Mark Hyland. “Our CEO Wayne Purboo’s vision was that networking speeds were going to get faster and that broadband wireless would be big,” he says. “We believe that you can’t take a PC web browsing experience and cram it on to a mobile device. Mobile is very location and context specific. It makes a difference where you’re using it.”

At CTIA 2008, the company began beta-testing a brand new service for media and entertainment customers to cheaply, quickly and easily publish video to the iPhone. “And ultimately to all video-enabled devices, but we’re focusing on iPhone first because of the interest,” says Hyland. “In 5 minutes you can take existing videos in any format and create a full video site for iPhone.” This new product is expected to be released by Q4 2008; the price is not yet set.

I checked in with Nokia‘s Kamar Shah with regard to Ovi, the company’s entertainment and media sharing service, as well as the company’s future plans in the entertainment space.Once again, the mobile Internet came to the fore. “From my perspective, in the area I work in, I want to show relevance of Nokia within this market in the Internet world,” he says. “I would justify that two-fold: we’re not taking the Internet and putting it on the mobile device. We’re redefining and evolving the Internet experience. That is based on what the consumer wants. Social networking makes up 20 percent of user time – after search and mail. It’s a phenomenon. We want to take that further and make it relevant to the consumer. We also have to make the advertising relevant, we have to get it right. There’s a very low tolerance for spam on the mobile phone.”

Referring to filmmaker L.M. Kit Carson’s “Africa Diary,” which he is shooting with his N95 camera, Shah also noted that this year Nokia partnered with MTV to supply N95s to the network’s journalists for Super Tuesday; content was streamed to MTV sites. Stay tuned to MobilizedTV for more news about Nokia and the entertainment world.

UIEvolution is an answer to the cacophony of mobile’s competing operating systems, devices and networks.”Mobile phones are so fragmented in terms of operating systems,” saysKeith O’Neill, vp, business development. “The thin client technology puts a layer of frosting that gives a seamless system so you can develop on top of that without worrying that it won’t work. We can work with PCs, STBs, consumer electronics devices , and automotive audio systems.”

UIEvolution's Keith O'Neill

UIEvolution's Keith O'Neill

Fragmentation prohibits growth and innovation because it becomes cost prohibitive for content creators without deep pockets, says O’Neill, and to that end, UIEvolution is rolling out Blender, a new web developer tool and service that takes web content–text, graphics and video–and mobilizes it. The business model is based on a revenue-sharing model. The web content creator pays a set-up fee, and then splits revenue with UIEvolution, the percentage of the split depending on volume. “For all that, we host and cover all the on-going device support.”

DeviceAnywhere was another interesting destination. Any content developer worried about making the video playable on the hundreds of devices out there can do so…remotely. DeviceAnywhere is an online service that provides access to hundreds of real handsets, on live worldwide networks, remotely over the Internet for developing, testing and porting. Once again, a great solution for web creatives who want to mobilize their content without becoming computer/wireless geeks.

Thumbplay launched Thumbplay Open, says president/CEO Are Traasdahl. “It gives the ability for any content creator to sell their content to 250 million wireless users across every carrier, operating system and handset,” he says. “It’s been hard for anyone creating content to get distribution because it’s beeen very carrier controlled. “The wall is down. Now it is one big happy garden.” The challenge has bee to build a platform that works not just across handsets and operating systems but across all billing systems and video codecs. “Our system is built so it automatically detects what handsest is trying to access the content and it converts on the fly to whatever the handset requires. Our system will convert to 2,500 different handsets and it’s all seamless.”

So far, the system is launched for visual artists and musicians, but will expand to video. Click here to try it yourself.

Once the content is uploaded into Thumbplay’s system, the content creator can distribute and sell the content (the system only accepts uncopyrighted material). The system allows you to create a widget which you post to your MySpace, Facebook pages. Or you can get your own URL and sell your content from that site. “You pay nothing to put your images or music up there, although we are evaluating if there should be a fee,” says Traasdahl. “You have to pay to consume the content, either per download, which costs $1 – 3, out of which the artist gets $.50. Or you join the Thumbplay service which is $9.99 a month. Any time someone signs up for the service through the artist’s page, that artist gets $5 to 8.” (Tay Zonday of Chocolate Rain fame made $10,000 in three months but, says Traasdahl, “he’s a very smart marketer.”)

Also new from Thumbplay was the announcement of a partnership with Comcast to provide the cable MSO with mobile entertainment services include ringtones, games, video, and music.

Last but not least, I met with David Danon of SonicBoom Media, a company that launched “Name That Tune,” a mobile music game in 2003 (which has a great back-story too long for this report). The company, says Danon, is now a leader in creating “the bridge between Web 2.0 and mobile.”

“We reach out to people in their social networks, so they feel comfortable upgrading their web experience to the phone,” he says. “It’s more profound to share an experience on the mobile that your friend has sent you from the web.”

Danon is also a big believer in the future of user-generated video content on the mobile platform: and he isn’t just talking about YouTube. Speaking to that belief is the company’s product Videomaker, due out the end of the year, which allows the user to make long-form movies from 15- to 20-second clips taken with the mobile phone’s video camera. The clips are arranged along a timeline and then connected via transition effects. The result can be sent to a mobile phone as an MMS or to a website as Flash. Also on SonicBoom Media’s agenda is the Hot America mobile beauty pageant completely on cell phones. Each state will have a competition and send its winner to the national contest. This launches in late November and the first winners will be declared in Summer 2009

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Mobile TV: Making It Through to the Next Round

This panel, moderated by The Hollywood Reporter deputy editor Andrew Wallenstein, included Telescope executive chair Jason George; Endemol USA SVP, digital media and branded entertainment Jon Vlassopoulos; GoTV Networks EVP/studio chief Daniel Tibbets; and Veeker co-founder/COO Marcus Yoder.

I confess, I came in late to this session because I just finished a long interview with L.M. Kit Carson, a filmmaker and journalist who shot short documentaries in Africa using the camera on his Nokia N93. I’ll be posting that shortly, so look out for it.

Wallenstein asked if there’s anything in the league of American Idol in terms of encouraging texting or participation as an adjunct to a TV experience. Vlassopoulos pointed out Deal or No Deal, and another participation show on BET that had a high level of interactivity participation. “The most exciting thing is that people are willing to get out their device and do something which is very significant for the advertisers,” he said. “We know American audiences like participating, so we know there is excitement. We’re working out the business models to connect carriers to the shows.”

The networks will be hungry for new revenue streams and the model will start to emerge, said George. Yoder said, however, that premium is still far off. “We’ve been trained as consumers that you pay a fee and you get your content,” he said. “Europeans are used to have to pay for everything.” The idea was bounced out that, for the 200 million texts that came for “Idol,” you could send them something down the pipe aside from an acknowledgment including a free use of the data for that vote. Pushing the carriers to do that open the opportunities for other sponsorships.

Mobile is a great device to get someone to perform a simple action, George added. A lot of our broadcast clients are interested in how to get people off TV to online and mobile and find rewards there and then drive them back to TV.

Vlassopoulos agreed. “TV is blind in terms of who’s watching,” he said. “If you encourage people to interact, you have their phone number and information. Everyone is asking the question about how digital will impact [traditional media], the death of the 30 second spot. Live programming will have a resurgence because it’s Tivo-proof. Having interactivity within advertisers spots, and moving people 360 to the web and back lets you know who they are.”

Wallenstein said he thought that momentum was lost over interactive applications; that broadcasters had tried and given up. Yes, broadcasters have slacked off, said Vlassopoulos. “I think there are some things on the back-end that have nothing to do with consumer or broadcaster demand that need to be sorted out,” he said. “The momentum is very much there. We’re trying to feed that demand as soon as possible.

Does it boil down to advertiser-demand being the main driver, asked Wallenstein, who said there was a schizophrenia between concern over disruption of traditional channels but weren’t ready to take the leap. What do you do to get them over the hump?

Tibbets agreed it is a Catch-22. “We have to get enough eyeballs in mobile to get advertisers to pay attention,” he said. “We can’t be mobile-centric, we have to pay attention to online, to TV. How we engage advertisers, it’s about brand integration, original content production – beyond mobile, what kind of eyeballs can I aggregate. If you can create the right brand identity and have the reach, that makes sense to them.”

GoTV started with P&G brands and as moved beyond that. He reported they’re working with a luxury car manufacturer but the series doesn’t have a car in it at all. It’s about brand identity, and the idea is to put it across as many broadband channels as possible. Yoder pointed out that he’s working with an athletic clothing manufacturer that wants user-generated content, as a jumping off point for interactivity. “If they do anything with the UGC, that’ll be icing on the cake, but the majority of the branding will be on a WAP page.”

Wallenstein asked for panelists’ opinions about MediaFLO. “It’s retro to re-purpose a linear feed, but maybe that’s how you get the soccer moms in,” he said. “What do you guys think of this market strategy?” “It’s clearly a long term play,” said Vlassopoulos. “It’ll come down to how well they play with the carriers.” “It’s still a marketing issue,” agreed Tibbetts, who reveals that Qualcomm is one of his investors. “The reality is that MediaFLO from a technology standpoint was to take the heavy lifting off the carriers. Can the network handle the volume of VOD or even streaming media? It was never built for that purpose. I have MediaFLO on my phone and I find it great when there’s a live event. If there’s a game on, and Comedy Central does “The Colbert Report” and if you don’t have access to it in any other way, it’s great and it’s fantastic quality. That’s great – but it’s not the final solution. The on-demand model is compelling when you want something specifically. You don’t have to wait for the bit you want or for the commercial to end.”

“It’s portable TV, so hopefully there’ll be more innovation on the VOD side,” said Vlassopoulos. “It’s a tricky model. With WiMAX, and other technologies looming…if you have your nice connected device, it’s more like a mini computer, then the value of MediaFLO evaporates somewhat.”

Is iPhone a good game changer? asked Wallenstein. Is there some other game changer you are all waiting for? The iPhone is just like the Internet on your phone, said Vlassopoulos, with a smaller computer screen, and that’s a game changer. Tibbets says the Internet browser on the phone, not WAP, is the future, and the iPhone did that. “WAP is dead,” he said.

Wallenstein asked panelists if conglomerates get it. Yes, said Vlassopoulos, who noted the close relationship with NBC. “They’re in lock-step with us in moving forward,” he said. “When we started in 2005, we had to yell loudly that it wasn’t just happening in Europe. I don’t know how my colleagues are faring with cable channels.” Tibbets noted it’s fairly recent that the big media companies realize that mobile is important. He quoted Peter Chernin who said that Fox has to regard mobile and broadband seriously. People at the media conglomerates get it, added Tibbets, but do they have the right infrastructure to deliver? Yes, they’re getting it as they experiment, added Yoder, who said that the media conglomerates are bringing on younger, more hip people. “In LA, 14 people at the local station has this in their bag of tricks when they’re out selling local,” he said.

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Producing and Monetizing Broadband Content

Digital Hollywood, May 5, 2008–Go shoot me – instead of going to a panel on the hardware and other technology at the base of enabling mobile TV and video, I went to one on producing and monetizing online or broadband content. Why? Broadband content was considered to be a wild and crazy thing not that long ago. Now, still wild but definitely not crazy. Although the path to mobile TV success may play out quite differently, it’s always instructive to learn from those who have gone before, even if it’s measurable by months not decades.

As I hoped, the panel was very instructive. First, the panelists represented a great group of new online studios–Vuguru and MyDamnChannel–that aren’t that different from film studios: creatives pitch ideas that subsequently get developed. Vuguru business executive Jane Hu pointed out that rather than getting a greenlight from an advertiser first, they try to bring all the pieces of the puzzle together at the same time. MySpace director of marketing & content Cristian Cussen reported they are piloting programming, spending on average $15,000 for three episodes, then internally reviewing them to see if they want to move forward. Then they take the episodes to advertisers to see if they can sell it and move forward. “It’s a low-risk way to proceed,” he said.

YouTube content partnership manager George Strompolos noted that although the company is pigeonholed for its cat videos, they partner with content creators of all kinds, including professional. “It’s a performance-based model,” he said. “If there are a lot of views, there is significant ad revenue.” Some content creators sell their own ad inventory on YouTube. With overlay ads, the content creator can determine who’ll be there, and it opens doors for selling ads.

Speaking from the advertiser point of view, Lori Schwartz, who is svp/director of emerging media at Interpublic Emerging Media Lab, said that ““once again, it’s the Wild West with no standard rules for engaging online” “It’s very confusing and a lot of my colleagues are a bit overwhelmed on who to go with – where does my budget come from? And especially premium content – where do I get that from? If I’m not from the broadcast side of the agency, I don’t have dollars to create content.”

Heavy.com vp of entertainment Jimmy Jellinek reported that they have found an extremely successful advertising model. Instead of cluttering up the page with buttons and banners, they deliver one brand impression, wrapping the player in that, increasing click-through dramatically. And it doesn’t interfere with the video you‘re trying to watch

MyDamn Channel’s Barnett said “it’s about not trying to overwhelm the audience,” and reported that the site is now lucky enough to keep people for up to 4 views per visit “because we’re offering a smaller amount (of videos) but higher quality. In the end, it’s brands, actors and characters that getaudiences and revenue. We passed 20 million views so we’re able to start talk advertisers – we’re bringing stars and consistency.”

Moderator Daniel Harris, chair/CEO of Mediapass Network asked what format the panelists are streaming in. Heavy.com’s Jellinek said all of them but noted the programs work best in Windows, not Mac. Hu noted that the various distributors take responsibility for encoding. But Flash was hands-down the most common format for distribution.

Next came questions from the audience. The conversation quickly turned to convincing wary advertisers that broadband content was worthy of their dollars. Ms. Schwartz talked about the benefits of a portal like Heavy.com. “When you’re talking to an advertisers about Heavy.com, it’s a specific portal where you are editorializing the content so I know who exactly will be there,” she said. “In this hyper-syndication model where you put video on every site, it’s harder for advertisers to know who their brand will be exposed to. Hyper-syndication loosens the brand.”

Discussing the download or transactional model versus ad–supported, Hu said “you have to offer something slightly different to get them to pay for the content. We did a deal where you could get the entire season plus some extra stuff for $9.99 from Amazon.”

Bottom line, broadband content creators and distributors are still trying to figure out which business model works and how. Sound familiar? MyDamnChannel’s Barnett brought the conversation back to why so many people are drawn to creating–and watching–broadband content. “We have Harry Shearer – he knew we’d sit down and agree what he would do and after that point he’s have total creative control,” he said. “Having done that, the networks are calling and want deals for content. But the onlyway it’ll work is if it’s independently created for this medium. The greatest thing about where we are now is the freedom.”

That’s another conversation for mobile content creators…

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