digital reporter

Going with the FLO TV not such a dumb idea

Millions watched Barry Bonds smack his record-tying 755th home run, but how many did that staring into the palm of their hand from the passenger seat of a moving car? That distinction might be mine alone thanks to FLO TV, a mobile offering from Verizon Wireless and MediaFlo USA, a division of Qualcomm.

Since FLO TV launched in March as MediaFlo TV, I had been itching to give the service a test drive. In a market riveted by Apple's iPhone, it was the LG VX9400 that captured my imagination, with its ability to broadcast a selection of popular live, linear TV channels. Only one other phone, the Samsung SCH-u620, can do the same in the U.S. until AT&T's own joint plan with Qualcomm kicks in this year.

But with all the attention being paid to Steve Jobs' creation and the rise of the so-called "smartphone," perhaps the marketplace is ignoring the potential viability of what I'll call a dumbphone, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

FLO TV presents an odd consumer proposition. As distribution of video on all platforms heads in a more on-demand direction epitomized by iTunes, FLO TV's broadcast model has a kicky retro flair to it. Why rely on a live transmission bound to get interrupted by patchy reception, and lack any DVR-ish controls like pause or rewind to recover what was missed?

But a few weeks with FLO TV set me straight. Primitive as its core functionality might be (though it also has some VOD options), FLO TV has found more traction in my life than the succession of sample VOD handsets collecting dust on my nightstand (hey, Amp'd, do I even need to return yours?).

The reason why is simple: Live TV is simple. Yes, FLO TV has many glitchy moments, emitting more clicking noises than Flipper caught in a tuna net whenever the reception turns spotty. But its programming format is much more conducive to the on-the-go style in which mobile media is consumed.

If I get a moment on a lunch break to pull out my mobile TV, I don't want to shuffle through an endless succession of navigation menus to sort through programming options that aren't refreshed nearly enough. With FLO TV, you press a button clearly marked with a TV set graphic. You choose from an eight-channel grid with top brands including CBS, NBC and Nickelodeon, and voila, instant TV.

Granted, much of FLO TV isn't technically live. Most of the lineups are not simulcasts of linear channels but reconstituted versions of their schedules. CBS allows viewers to watch a replay of the previous night's episode of "Late Show With David Letterman" in the afternoon, for instance.

But as Qualcomm's sponsorship presence at X Games 13 indicates, it is live sports that is fast becoming the selling point for FLO TV. The service has broadcast more than 250 events since launch, and there's 150 more college football games coming in the fall, including 20 different "bowl" matchups. Newshounds also are a key audience segment for FLO TV, which makes a breaking story like Bonds' home run right in the service's strike zone.

Perhaps FLO TV's dumbphone style could use a second look. Once iPhone has exhausted the early adopters and the hype has died down, there will be a clamoring for a simpler mobile service that might not have techies salivating but could tap a much broader consumer base.

The hard part already has been accomplished: More than 220 million U.S. wireless subscribers have made these devices an essential part of their lives. To get a bigger fraction of them moving beyond voice and text services to sample video content, a simpler solution like FLO TV could be the key.
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