Mobile entertainment not quite kids’ stuff yet

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Talk to anyone about the cell phone as an entertainment device and it doesn’t take long before the word “teenager” pops up. The assumption is that it’s those tech-savvy 13- to 21-year-olds who are driving the market with an insatiable appetite for watching “Jackass”-style video clips.

Wrong. Kids aren’t driving the market. Or put it this way: Kids aren’t spending the tens of billions of dollars that market forecasters say soon will add up from selling mobile entertainment. Among the reasons: These mobile goodies can be expensive, and many kids don’t have the money.

And get this: Even kids -- you know, our technology experts -- say that mobile phones might as well be Rubik’s cubes when it comes to fetching entertainment. It simply ain’t easy to figure out how to quickly and cheaply surf the Internet to grab videos, songs and games.

“Our fathers find it too hard, and they’ll ask us (to help), and we find it too hard,” a teenage boy remarked at a recent conference staged by the Mobile Entertainment Forum in Monte Carlo. MEF had gathered a group of 10 13- to 15-year-olds for a panel that some of us fogeys assumed would ply us with anecdotes of the cell phone as an all-in-one remote-control device that continuously fetches their favorite shows, clips and tunes.

Instead, many of us left thinking that if the kids can’t and won’t do it, then what chance do the rest of us have of even getting interested?

As the mobile industry gathers for its seemingly weekly confab -- this week its in San Francisco at the CTIA show -- they should listen to the kids. Make mobile entertainment easy to use and affordable. It’s not the kids themselves that are elusive. Kids want mobile entertainment. The Monte Carlo young’uns told us that they use their Internet-connected PCs as entertainment devices and that they would use their phones the same way if only the mobile Internet was easy to use.

They also said they transfer content from PCs onto their phones. This “side-loading” is the bane of carriers who are desperate to convince users to download content over cellular airwaves. It’s the model that Apple uses to push content onto iPods. As noted in this column last month, it helps explain why handset giant Nokia is diving into music downloading.

More encouraging news from Monte Carlo’s pimple-aged panel: All 10 youngsters said they would give up their TVs and PCs before ditching their phones. Their interest in the Internet and their phones sets the stage for a lively mobile entertainment market. The least sober prediction I’ve seen comes from Britain’s Juniper Research, which forecasts a $188 billion global mobile entertainment market by 2012.

If the industry is going to hit even half of that, then at least one change is in order. Carriers have to truly open up access to content so that users find it both affordable and easy. Right now, carriers are still in the lip-service stage. While Vodafone puts a one-stroke “hot key” on its phones that waltzes a user onto the Vodafonlive deck, they have no such hot key to facilitate open Internet access. And despite talk of implementing “flat-fee” data packages, users still suffer bill shock when they wander off the portal.

The Vodafones of the world still squirm at the phrase “open access.” No wonder media and handset companies are storming ahead in the meantime with their own “direct-to-consumer” mobile initiatives, like Nokia’s music service, and like the mobile portal that NBC Universal plans to kick off next month, and so many others. In the process, both telcos and media companies are trying to figure out how to sell advertising to help trim user fees. They’ll get there, and when they do, we’ll finally see the elusive kids money that industry has only dreamed of.
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