Futurewatch: Mobile

The problem with doing these Futurewatch articles year after year is the potential to actually get a prediction right. Or mostly right.

HD Mobile Phones: Last year I posited that HD-capable mobile handsets might hit the market by the end of 2009. I’m glad to announce we’re halfway there, as several phones on the market from Samsung, Sony Ericsson, and others are capable of capturing 8 megapixel still images or 720p HD video content.

On the other hand, while the ability to send HD content to the iPhone has generated some buzz (even though it is really only less-than-standard-definition content that originally started as HD content), the move toward receiving true 720p or 1080p HD content on the phone has lagged.

The delay isn’t the chip sets’ fault. A Texas Instruments OMAP3430 chip forms the basis of some of the mobile devices that capture 720p HD, and the chip is capable of receiving, capturing, and displaying 720p video. NVIDIA has its APX 2500 processor, capable of HDMI 1.2 as well as SXGA (1280x1024) LCD and CRT support, and Broadcom has its VideoCore III multimedia processor.

The bigger problem, which may be solved in 2010, is the lower-resolution screens found on mobile devices. The iPhone’s screen is a 480x320 pixel resolution at 163 pixels per inch (ppi), which leaves it well shy of 1280x720 pixel resolution. It’s also an 89mm (3.5") diagonal widescreen, while newer, 720p capture phones such as the Samsung i8910 HD use a 94mm (3.7") diagonal screen. Even so, at pixel resolutions of 163 ppi, screens will need to be almost four times their current size to view 720p content.

Apple, for its part, may be gunning for portable HD viewing as part of its erstwhile iTablet, rumors of which continue to surface almost every week. More than likely, though, Apple and other manufacturers are also considering a variety of connection interfaces, including the Mini DisplayPort connector that Apple has added to its line of desktop and laptop computers. The Mini DisplayPort is only 8mm high and can support speeds in excess of 7Gbps per primary “lane” or channel and 2Gbps on the auxiliary channel.

Reding’s Reign: Last year’s Futurewatch also mentioned that European Commissioner for information society and media Viviane Reding would be pressing for data roaming caps in 2009, should the mobile industry in Europe fail to police itself. On July 1, 2009, Reding’s vision was implemented, with the potential to make data roaming between carriers and countries a key growth catalyst for 2010.

Reding’s role as the telecommunications watchdog—or competition enabler, depending on your stance—ends in early 2010. She moves on to the role of a vice president of the European Commission, responsible for the area of Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship. Yet the Luxembourger won’t be far from the world of mobile data, as she will be tasked to rewrite EU-wide data protection laws.

Lest anyone think that the European Commission’s oversight of mobile voice and data delivery will slip, one need look no further than Reding’s successor, Neelie Kroes, the former European Commisioner for competition. In the Competition Commissioner role, Kroes oversaw the Microsoft anti-competition hearings, and her new role in the combined Information Society-Information Security Agency mashup (to be called the Digital Agenda commission) will include work on next-generation broadband access, including mobile and fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks.

New Content Options: With the introduction of Sky Player for Xbox at the end of 2009, Sky is making a play for a pan-European streaming service. The new service will act as a catch-up service for those who already have Sky’s satellite service, but it is not limited to those who have chosen not to use Sky for their television.

“This is the first time a customer can get the same Sky content without needing to subscribe to the satellite service,” says Fearghal Kelly, VP of media solutions at ioko, which created the Xbox player. “The fact that Sky have footprint[s] in both the U.K. and on the Continent means Sky are able to significantly expand their customer base for premium content.”

This expansion of Sky’s footprint means that Sky will need to address many more platforms than just the Xbox gaming console, and Kelly showed off potential platforms beyond the Xbox at the 2009 IBC tradeshow in Amsterdam, several of which were portable devices. Both the Xbox service and the BBC’s iPlayer, which is available on the Wii and PlayStation 3 devices, had some difficulty in initial launches of their services on gaming consoles, so it may not be until late 2010 that we see the iPlayer and Sky offerings emerge on mobile handsets.

New Delivery Channels: In the meantime, this creates an opportunity for out-of-band solutions such as MediaFLO, a subsidiary of Qualcomm that uses a separate receiver chipset to receive sideband video signals.

Yet there is significant competition between competing standards on both sides of the pond. As a result, broadcast product manufacturers seem to be hedging their bets on transmission products for these sideband delivery tools, offering transmitters that support an alphabet soup of standards: ATSC (A/153), CMMB (STiMi), DAB/T-DMB, DVB-T, DVB-H, DVB-SH, FLO, and SDARS.

“My opinion,” says Bill Stone, president of FLO TV, “is that we should partner with [other standards] to help drive overall adoption, so we’ve reached out to discuss this with OMVC. Fast forward 5 years and I think you’ll see a similar model between free TV and pay TV, where we would provide the pay TV portion of the equation.”

While FLO is currently only available in Japan and the U.S., where it recently launched its subscription-based mobile FLO Personal Television device, the company sees Europe as a key growth market for its paid premium delivery content. Based on that, I suspect FLO or at least one other mobile entertainment device manufacturer will establish a presence in Europe by the end of 2010.
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