Internet Video

Mobile Content Shows its Softer Side

9/15/2006 8:04 PM Eastern

Los Angeles— If the wireless CTIA IT show here last week is any indication, mobile technology is literally going soft — but that isn’t a bad thing.

In panel sessions, show floor displays and the inevitable deluge of press releases, the focus for the mobile content industry continues to move from hardware to software — from the core high-speed mobile network gear now up and running to the service-oriented user interfaces, download transaction systems and search engines build upon those networks to actually offer multimedia services.

The common theme for all: how to improve what consumers see on their cell phone screens.

AOL’S SEARCHING

That’s the focus these days for America Online Inc.’s Seattle-based mobile unit, according to Mike Wehrs, chief technical evangelist for AOL Mobile.

During his keynote talk at the pre-show Mobile Entertainment, Content, Commerce and Applications Conference, Wehrs told the crowd that a key project for AOL’s mobile unit is creating better search tools to help consumers find what content is available on their phones.

At present, many consumers aren’t aware of all the content their new phones can access, and that has resulted in a growing problem among carriers — many find that after a month or so of getting a new cell phone, average data average revenue per user actually drops. Wehrs attributed that in part to the fact that the phone software systems don’t do a good enough job of presenting all of the new available content to mobile users. Nor do they make it easy for users to access the media.

So he showed off AOL’s new T9 Navigator search software, which offers a keyword search that not only dives into the user’s address book but also any content offered through the provider’s content portal or stored as files on the phone.

“You can view it as: Almost anything that the device can access or has stored on it I can get in three keystrokes,” Wehrs said.

MAKE IT EASIER

As with others at the show, Wehrs also warned that customers are becoming frustrated that they must double-pay for content if they want to access it on a mobile device. For example, a mobile phone subscriber often has to pay for a mobile version of a song, even though they may also have the same song stored on their home PC or on a CD. Wehrs noted consumers also are not going to spend extra money to listen to their music or see content stored on their personal computers on a mobile device. And so far, content providers have not made it easy for consumers to do so.

Digital commerce services giant VeriSign Inc. also sees that duplicate content problem, so it has developed a system that can deliver two versions of a music or video file geared for either wired or wireless devices — and with content protection to fit both — but all handled via a single purchase transaction.

“Especially on the subscription side, it’s complex to run a subscriber program where you have many providers being pooled into a catalog of content,” said Jeffrey Treuhaft, VeriSign’s senior vice president of digital content services. “Our product would enable that.”

LINUX APPROACH

AOL also is pushing for standardized cell phone operating systems. The bulk of consumer handsets now are based on the handset maker’s proprietary, home-grown operating system, and this presents obstacles to applications providers because they have to create versions of their software to fit each handset issued.

Going to an open standards-based scheme — which is what Motorola Inc. is doing with its move to base all consumer handsets in a Linux mobile operating system — would cut down on much of this duplication, Wehrs said.

To encourage that trend, AOL working on an open software applications framework based on Linux.

“Access technology is something we are going to see more and more in a standardized way,” Wehrs said. “And it is something that we are investing heavily in.”

Technology that could help content providers more easily field their wares to wireless consumers also was definitely in vogue at the show.

Case in point was the rollout of a new product from thePlatform aimed at connecting content owners to multiple carriers regardless of what format or rights protection system those carriers require.

Now owned by Comcast Corp., thePlatform has built up a client base in the Web universe, powering content sites ABC News, CNBC News and Scripps Network.

It also has entered the mobile world, powering the content delivery for Verizon Wireless’ V Cast broadband content service.

Its new Connectors product marries those two worlds, offering a way to publish the same content on wired and wireless platforms.

PUBLISHING TOOL

The result is a service that allows the content provider to upload its content once and publish it to mobile or broadband outlets.

“It’s really attempting to remove a lot of the technical friction when you are trying to publish to multiple outlets across platforms, across formats with different policies,” said Ian Blaine, thePlatform’s CEO. “Every carrier expects something different from the content owners; every broadband outlet expects something different. Some of those differences are easier to handle than others, but in aggregate it is a huge, complex scenario for the content owners.”

ThePlatform already has its first customer in ESPN, which has started using the Connectors software to field its content to multiple mobile services. Blaine said that other existing customers also are planning to start using the Connectors software in the next few months.

So far, thePlatform has developed integrated plugins for Verizon, as well as Cingular Wireless and Sprint Nextel. Blaine said that over time, it will add plugins for other regional wireless carriers such as Alltel and U.S. Cellular as well as Internet players ranging from Google Inc. to Apple Corp.’s iTunes service.

In addition, new Connectors software may come in handy for Comcast, its cable parent.

“They can heavily leverage this,” Blaine said. “We are already using this to allow people to publish to The Fan, which is their broadband site. And certainly, you can imagine it being used to tie together a bunch of services.”

September