The White Elephant of Mobile

I’m never more than a few inches away from it and like most people, I play with mine all the time. Despite this level of intimacy with our mobiles, our functional use of them has not developed at such a pace. Sure we take a few snaps and videos, but the content of these is typically personal. If you’ve ever skimmed through your mobile the morning after a boozy session, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Frankly however, I’d be more surprised if I found an episode of Lost or 24 on my mobile, than a video with what looks like my mates auditioning for Wayne Rooney’s wedding reception. Sure I was tipsy, but what on earth would have possessed me to download that over the network last night?!

Video content on mobiles has for sometime been shared amongst friends, but little of it is commercial. Much like a digital camera, we use mobiles to record moments we wish to share later on. Our perception of downloadable video-content on mobile then has changed little since it was first launched. We’ve adopted the mobile’s camera-like qualities, fused this with its communication functionality and defined our relationship with the handset on these terms. Simply put, video downloads are the White Elephant of mobile. We, as consumers, believe that mobile video-content is slow to download and is unreasonably expensive. Consumer perception is reality and this reality has survived through successive generations of handsets. Indeed, we access news on our mobiles at twice times the rate of video and download games at three times the rate. Unsurprisingly, the distribution and commercial models that existed around video content have now all but disappeared.

It had started so promisingly, data rich mobile networks could offer video content owners high levels of targeting and accountability. ‘Build it and they will come’; because someone is going to have to pay for this 3G licence. While all this was going on, we were teaching ourselves how to download content onto our PCs, then onto our iPods. It was a straightforward and most importantly, cheap and fast. So once mobiles started encouraging us to download over the network, our behaviour was pretty much entrenched. Instead, the iPod generation applied this side-loading technique to mobile, and with the push of a button effectively killed off the commercial marketability of a mobile-video download proposition. However, watching video on your mobile is about as enjoyable as inserting the handset into your eyeball, which is effectively what you have to do to make anything out; if indeed the battery lasts that long. No wonder the number of people who side-load video content is about as small as the screen itself.

The iPhone has probably got the screen issue sorted, great quality and at a perfect size – no wonder Apple is getting into the video rental and download to own market. The iPhone however is a converged device: technically and in consumer perception. However, not even Apple is suggesting you download over the network. Their iTunes side-loading proposition builds upon existing consumer behaviour, as successful commercial propositions tend to do. In the meantime, mobile handset users will continue to share personal video with friends, which will have been recorded or gotten onto the device through video-messaging or Bluetooth. If there is any new money, it’s in brands facilitating this viral banter, either by subsidizing or sponsoring video-messaging. Such WKD ‘side’ banter could create richer media experiences around existing social behaviours. This reflects what a mobile in our perception is designed to do: promote social communication. Hence the marketability of Vodafone’s free Facebook access: it builds on the functionality of a mobile as a social and communication tool. It’s also, unlike mobile video content, not data intensive and therefore cheap and quick over the network.

Where does this leave us then? The screen issue will be resolved as handsets evolve, but there’s not going to be any new money on the table for network operators as a result. An evolved handset is a converged iPhone-like handset where the only market is in side-loading. Networks would need their own side-loading proposition to make video-content viable, and that’s a distribution channel Apple had sown up long ago. So in the future I may be surprised the morning after to find an episode of Lost or 24 on my mobile, but that would have been my mobile syncing through my wi-fi, while I slept of the booze.

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