Early adaptors

A look at four companies on the cutting edge of mobile programming and technology.

If you want to stay apprised of what's going on these days in the world of mobile programming, you'll need to pay close and constant attention. The business tends to evolve more or less by the week, sometimes by the day, and what's bold and new and cutting edge today is bound to be outdated by next Wednesday as the fledgling medium makes a play to find its niche in the consumer marketplace.

From the first baby steps of video snippets and short-run versions of established TV shows, live programming (including sports, news, music and specials) has joined the mobile fray with offerings targeting the primary consumer of the miniscreen world: the so-called "early adopters" ages 18-24. But that youth demographic is beginning to expand to older folks in their 30s and (gasp) 40s as program technology expands and availability grows.

Just last week, Verizon unveiled plans to rollout a new interactive programming guide that allows video customers to access content from the television, Internet and their personal music and photo collections. Pretty soon, you might well be able to do and see on your handset everything that you can on a computer.

Following is a quick look at four mobile entertainment providers vying for a healthy slice of a pie that has yet to be carved.

GoTV

The 2-year-old service bills itself as "the first made-for-mobile television network," offering some 60 hours and more than 300 original programs each month on your phone (assuming you are a subscriber with one of GoTV's cellular partners, which include Sprint Nextel, Cingular and Boost Mobile). Its offerings and channels vary wildly, from broadcast-to-phone offerings and special events to a comedic news update called "Why Today Sucked."

The overwhelming majority of the offerings run between one and four minutes, the quick-hit pieces and highlight compilations that are thought to work best for the on-the-go teen and young adult market. The subscription cost to consumers ranges from $2.99 for the Sony BMG Front Row music collection to $8.99 for a flagship package, with most premium video channels going for $5.99 monthly. The choices include the edgy music channel Altitude, Hip-Hop Official, the comedic Laugh Riot, GoTV Superchannel (news and sports updates and videos), Fantasy Sports Edge and the femme-targeted Diva (Hollywood beauty secrets, anyone?).

"We really tend to focus on programming with an immersive component to it," GoTV CEO David Bluhm says. "We're looking at niche programming that kids completely connect with to the point of walking the walk and dressing the dress. Everything we do targets the early adopters, which for us means age 14-25. We also produce branded shows for many of the networks."

What Bluhm and his colleagues never lose sight of, Bluhm notes, is the fact that mobile programming is a far different animal than that found on the larger screen. Full-length sitcoms and dramas probably never will fit with the mobile model, he believes.

"Story arcs that you do for network TV don't work well on a telephone," he says. "You have to think of phones more like mini-PCs than small TV sets because it's so highly interactive. Mobile is big now, and it's going to be huge. There are 2 billion mobile phones in the world and only 475 million PCs, so the hardware is out there. So, the networks now have to reinvent themselves around mobile and an expanded on-demand model."

Amp'd Mobile

Available solely on special Amp'd Mobile phones, the carrier's programming emphasizes repackaged content over originals in its 27 linear channel TV offerings (unlimited usage costs $10 a month, while a la carte choices are available for less) and full-track songs (99 cents apiece). It also offers radio channels and 3-D games targeting the 18-35 demographic, as well as a video-on-demand service entitled Overdose and bundled mobile music packages.

Much of the TV content encompasses various offerings from basic cable networks including A&E, Comedy Central, Discovery Channel, E! Entertainment Television, the History Channel, Oxygen and Spike TV. But it also offers a simultaneous broadcast of Fox News Channel as well as live football and baseball games, Ultimate Fighting Championship action and motocross racing. And while Amp'd founder and CEO Peter Adderton says that only 5% of his service's content is originally generated, it comprises 30% of overall usage and includes the breakout political satire "Lil' Bush: Resident of the United States."

Debuting this past September, "Lil' Bush" was plucked by Comedy Central for airing beginning next summer -- the first instance of a show produced specifically for the wireless/mobile world making its way to the larger screen. The Santa Monica-based Amp'd also produces originals such as "Venice Beach," the cover band series "Z List" and the college-dorm-cuisine-themed "Hot Dish."

"We don't necessarily subscribe to the idea that shortform content is the sole future of mobile," Adderton says. "We've had great success with our live content, which underscores our philosophy that length matters less than creating and making available programming that can't be found on the big screen. That's the secret to success in this world."

Yes, Adderton acknowledges, people prefer the 63-inch plasma to the 2-inch contrast challenges of a phone screen. But he notes that people who wanted to see Saddam Hussein's execution (recorded on a cell phone) didn't much care in what size or format it ran.

"And I think eventually, we'll be watching movies on mobile handsets, too," he says. "As the quality improves and the offerings explode, this medium will serve to expand the television market." In other words, size matters in this game -- but only to a point.

MobiTV

Arguably the largest mobile program subscription service in the world, MobiTV offers some 50 channels of programming in the U.S. and an additional 100 internationally (including in Canada, Latin America and the U.K.). It has relationships with every major carrier except Verizon, including Alltel, AT&T, Cingular and Spring. Its latest deal, announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, was forged with the Sprint-Cable Companies Joint Venture video services.

"Our corporate motto ought to be, 'Get out of the way, we'll do it,'" MobiTV CEO, chairman and co-founder Phillip Alvelda quips. "We've made it really simple for the broadcasters to get their feet wet in the mobile universe. All they have to do is sign an agreement, and we supply the operation, the infrastructure, the operation, the distribution. It's like found eyeballs for them, using really the same model as a cable or satellite distributor."

The service works on both an on-demand and linear TV model (which costs subscribers $9.99 per month) and finds MobiTV licensing content directly from the studios and essentially programming its own TV stations. It features versions of Bravo, Discovery, ESPN, MSNBC, Oxygen and TLC, as well as more hard-core youth fare such as Chaos Extreme (punk rock, postgrunge and metal) and Blip TV (promising "the best in short-attention-span entertainment").

But like Adderton at Amp'd Mobile, Alvelda views mobile content as more than the exclusive domain of the young.

"Over 85% of the people who make new cell phone purchases are also purchasing TV services," Alvelda observes. "That tells you the awareness of new services is rising fast and going beyond the early-adopter stage. Our core philosophy now is to have something for everyone, which is why we feature so many channels. There's always the cultural need to be more informed than your friend, and mobile helps make that happen."

It's inevitable that as the target age of mobile programming creeps upward, the length of segments will increase along with it, Alvelda believes. "Those who stay focused on programming 30-second segments ignore the way this medium is consumed. Some are there for 15 seconds to check a stock price, but others may want to watch an entire show," he says. "The technology is finally in place for nearly every niche to be served."

Limbo 41414

The gambit at Limbo 41414 (www.41414.com) is text-message-based mobile entertainment-gameplay -- specifically the Limbo Auction. Integrating the components of a sweepstakes with an auction, it's an interactive game that's decidedly different from bidding, say, on an eBay item. In this one, the winner is the person who makes the lowest bid amount that is shared by no other bidder. Winners of the auctions, which can run anywhere from a single day to two months, win prizes including plasma TV sets or -- in one case -- a Hummer H3. Limbo also recently ran a contest involving Snoop Dogg.

"It's a very addictive form of play," Limbo 41414 president and co-founder Rob Lawson says. "It's about building strategies, outbidding, outplaying and essentially outwitting everyone else who's playing. The average person playing bids 41 times a month."

Limbo can be played through all major U.S. mobile operators and is backed by venture capital funds from Azure Capital Partners and Draper Fisher Jurvetson. It's offered free to the consumer, with 10-20 auctions going simultaneously at any given time. "The genius of it is people don't feel like they're being advertised to," Lawson says, "and at the same time, it isn't gambling. It's a unique beast."


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