USA: CellFlix Festival Celebrates Movies for Mobiles

Technology & Convergence

Earlier this month at the second annual CellFlix Film Festival in New York, a very short film (about a six-foot lobster, obviously), made specifically for showing on a mobile handset took top honours. The America-wide contest offers a US$5,000 prize for filmmakers to create a 30-second cellphone video.

At the other end of the spectrum, Universal Studios has just announced that it is to partner with I-play, a Silicon Valley mobile entertainment company, to provide a video service for mobile phones. The so-called “Movie Minutes” service will feature clips of “blockbusters” and classic fare from Universal Studios’ film archive. It will be available on the Sprint, Verizon, Rogers, (a Canadian Wireless carrier) and Amp'd Mobile networks.

Movie Minutes is powered by a proprietary mobile video application developed by I-play. It allows consumers to stream video clips and bookmark favourites to build-up a personalised mobile video library. The software also includes a mini media player, that rejoices in the name “I-player.” Don’t tell that nice Mr. Jobs.

David Gosen, the CEO of I-play points out that “streaming video clips to mobile devices is a huge growth area for us and we are thrilled to be working with Universal Mobile Entertainment.”

In all the hype and bugle-oil, the word “clips” is perhaps the most telltale. Why? Because it is indicative of the fact that full-length programming is not really feasible yet. Most US networks and handsets simply are not equipped to deal with anything more than video snippets lasting for a few tens of seconds – after that the law of diminishing returns sets in as handset batteries quickly drain of power.

Dr. Ronjon Nag, the CEO of Cellmania agrees that “in the case of video, the limiting factors are bandwidth and handset characteristics. As the bandwidth capabilities increase, say in 3G/UMTS/EVDO Rev A networks, a lot more is possible such as video streaming and podcasting - however, even in these scenarios, there is a heavy strain on battery life.”

Weston Henderek, Senior Analyst of Wireless Services at Current Analysis also makes the case that carriers are still trying to figure out the right mix of content to offer and at what price.

And price is a very touchy issue as most carriers with mobile video/TV services charge a minimum of$15 per month for basic mobile video/TV access. That’s expensive but, as consumers often find out to their cost only after they sign-up, the services often include extra charges per kilobyte of data received, the details of which are hidden away in the multiple pages of almost indecipherable fine print that constitute the average US mobile contract.

For example, Sprint has a wide range of premium channels that can be had for $3.95 to $9.95 per channel. That’s downright expensive to watch a short video of a 6-foot crustacean.

Thus, given limited available content and high prices, mobile video/TV usage in the US is currently very low and operators can only hope that as the amount of content increases, a handsets improve and competition forces prices down, usage will increase.

And this, of course is where where YouTube comes in. Last December the popular online video site teamed- up with Verizon Wireless and began delivering selections from its most popular videos. Elsewhere, millions of Verizon “V CAST” subscribers in the US now can purchase a so-called “VPak subscription” for $15.00 monthly access, or $3.00 daily access, to services including unlimited “basic” video. However, additional application download fees apply for 3D games and “premium” video. The trouble is the distinction between “basic” and “premium” seems arbitrary in the extreme.

Nonetheless, John Harrobin, the vice president of digital media at Verizon Wireless enthuses about the service. He says,“Delivering YouTube content gives [our] customers a mobile connection to video that has revolutionised how people are being entertained today”.

Motorola executive VP and CTO, Padmasree Warrior, (really) shares the sentiment. Blogging from the iHollywood conference last week, where she was a featured speaker, Warrior pointed out that “we are starting to think across multiple screens…and sales of portable multimedia units will skyrocket fro $260 million last year to $1.8 billion by 2009 and the mobile phone will be the portable media player of choice because it amounts to a personal digital media gateway people have with them no matter where they are. In Asia, commuters spend over an hour each way shuttling to work with nearly half using public transportation. That is a huge opportunity for both content owners and advertisers.”

But that’s Asia. In the US, operators and content providers like to think that the mobile video giant is waking from a deep slumber. However, some analysts believe he’s just turning over in his sleep and will continue snoring until roused by the smell of expensive coffee.

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