Getting a glimpse of the future is always a good idea if you want to take advantage of it. If only you’d known that software was going to be more important than hardware, you could have dumped that IBM stock early and bought into Microsoft. If only you’d known internet porn was coming along, you wouldn’t have saved all those Penthouses. If only you’d known the hole in the ozone layer was widening, you would have bought more sunscreen for your Mexican hairless with melanoma.
Last week, I got a glimpse of the future of things you can carry in your pocket at a seminar presented by The Media Center at the American Press Institute called Media Opportunities and Strategies for the Mobile Broadband Generation (where you can read bios of everyone mentioned here), so artists and writers (hereafter known as content providers), prepare to create for a whole new market, those with spare money to invest, prepare to pay attention, and those with spare time, prepare to never stop paying.
In the future, you’re going to have a lot more options concerning how to spend your downtime, roughly defined as the time in-between the times you’re actually doing something. If you’re home and you’re bored, you turn on the TV. If you’re bored in the car, there’s the radio. But what if you’re bored in an elevator or in a line? What if the waiter is taking forever with your salad or you arrived at the theater early? You could try meditating, but Buddhism doesn’t fit in the Mobilista plans to fill every second of your day with something meaningless to do. You take out your cell phone and while away the seconds.
The first mobile phones (Generation 1) were analogue, the next (G2) were digital, and we’re now entering the G3 era, where phones have a cornucopia of new uses, including 4-6 gigabyte hard drives, text messaging (140 characters per screen) and the full streaming of channels that will deliver video and MP3 quality sound. Consider that American Idol gets 14 million text messages during voting before you write this off as a passing fad. It’s a world with 150 different devices on the market, where “viral” is a good thing, where immediacy trumps quality, and there are so many protocols it makes the VHS/Beta debate look like rock/paper/scissors.
The Mobilistas figure, with good reason, that nowadays no one leaves home without their keys, their wallet, and their cell phone. If they could take over your keys and your wallet, they would, and they will, but right now they’re aiming at what they can get at. Mobile media, media in bite-sized chunks – where the biggest sellers are ringtones and wallpaper, making overnight millionaires of people smart enough to be selling them – is specifically created to access on the move. It’s not TV. Too long. It’s not internet. The screen’s too small for serious research and it’s not even compatible with HTML. Mobile media is a brand new thing, aimed at people who can’t stand going for one single nanosecond without something to do.
Waiting for the dentist? Why read an old issue of Cosmo when you’ve got 30,000 games at your disposal. Stuck in traffic? Don’t fume, do some mobile blogging. Backpacking and resting on a rock? Why bother enjoying the scenery when you can watch a one-minute “mobisode” of 24?
I attended seminars, listened to speeches, saw demonstrations, and chatted up the bigwigs in a desperate attempt to figure out what was going on. I can’t tell you how many times I had to lean over to the person next to me and ask what the hell the speaker was talking about. I’m no technophobe, just a victim of a monetary crunch who has to get by on an antiquated WIN98 machine and a modem, which I brought with me and set up in the hotel room. Local calls turned out to be a dime a minute, so there went that notion. (Turned out the best place to retrieve my email was across the street at the downtown Los Angeles Public Library, the biggest west of the Mississippi, with hundreds of computers and free access. The building is magnificent, with an atrium the size of a football field and escalators leading to eight floors of amazing reading material. An entire floor of novels. I would have been happy to spend the entire trip there.)
Forty people in the room, constant ringtones going off, pastries and coffee in the corner. Rather than set up a ubiquitous state-of-the-art laptop, I scribbled away on the conveniently supplied notebook with the conveniently supplied pen in the Palos Verde meeting room off the lobby of the Westin Bonaventure for the first day of talks…
After an introduction by the producers of the event, Andrew Nachison and Susan Mernit, all in shades of green, the opening speaker, Will Weiss, chairman and CEO of the Promar Group, said “The future is a really big place,” which only goes to show that I, and all journalists, have the Godlike ability to quote people out of context and make them sound dumber than they actually are. Weiss was a good opener, making it clear that there were opportunities galore, and that we should “think about designing the future, not trying to predict it.” He talked about “guardrails,” about the new media infiltrating everything. There are “Delta kiosks” where you can dump all your info before getting on a plane. GM’s OnStar system, designed to deliver maps, now delivers news. Coke, finding themselves in possession of a massive distribution system, are now a media company with everything they need but content. While hyping us about “pay per performance” and “revenue streams,” he advised us to work backwards, to start with the customer, not the technology. He told us the legendary story of Walter Yetnikov, the President of CBS Records, and Black Friday, when he thought he’d have to lay off half his staff because of the advent of CD technology, only to see his sales skyrocket. You just never know.
Some parts of the future are scary, especially the possible uses of GPS (Global Positioning Systems). We’ve all seen the OnStar ads where someone’s car says “We know where you are, don’t move, help is on the way.” In this case, we are glad that OnStar knows where we are. But imagine this. You’re walking down the street and your cell phone rings. You answer it and find out it’s the Starbucks you’re walking past, beaming you a bar-code, and telling you that if you come in and let them scan it, you get a buck off a latte. In that case, unless you’re starving for caffeine, you might not be so glad that even Starbucks knows where you are.
Last week I groused that I wasn’t interested in a new technology that delivered the same old crap, and along came Lucy Hood, senior vice president of content and marketing for Newscorp, who seems to have heard my plea and gone the other way with it. She represented “Fox for Phones” and gave us The Fox Perspective – pushing the boundaries of mobile content. (Someone’s going to have to explain what she meant when she said she wanted to change the “value chain” to a “value ecosystem.”) Hood showed us examples of “mobisodes,” one minute “mobile episodes” of current TV hits that can be downloaded to cell phones, including a lovely 60 seconds of Paris and Nicole changing diapers at a daycare center. Literally the same old crap.
Admittedly, a mobisode of 24 was very entertaining, managing to cram a seduction, a murder, and an identity theft into one fast-paced minute. I can definitely see how fans of the broadcast version would want to see every mobisode too, if you don’t take into account the Sinbad Syndrome, uttered by the genie in the Disney version, i.e. “All the power in the world, itsy bitsy living space.” I saw the webisode of 24 on a big screen. How it will play in a crowded elevator on a screen the size of two Doritos is another matter.
Only 20,000 devices can currently get mobisodes, but that’s going to change fast as G3s take over the market. They’ll be “the fourth screen.”
Through the next speaker, Brian Gratch, I learned there’s a 70% penetration of cell phones in the USA and in excess of 100% in Sweden. The biggest sellers, ringtones and wallpaper, are just baby steps to gaming, then the user is hooked. It took 10 years to reach a billion cell phones in 2002, and only four years to reach two billion in 2006. They’re already running out of new people to sell to, so whatever group you belong to, expect to be targeted. There’s less calling and more T-messaging. Text messages are up to 45 billion per month, actually bigger than e-mail. Cell phones are a “portable proxy for social connections,” a “short term engagement during downtime,” and the fastest road towards “instant gratification.” If you want to freak out your local cell phone salesman, be sure to grill them on “inter-carrier interoperability.”
Scott Smyers of the Digital Living Network Alliance and Sony made my head spin and the person next to me hate my guts as I asked them what the hell is wi-fi, wi-max, and what are silos. Please please please don’t ask me to explain what wi-fi is. Just go here. (Okay, okay, it’s 802.11b, a standard for wireless LANs operating in the 2.4 GHz spectrum with a bandwidth of 11 Mbps, not to be confused with 802.11a, which is a different standard for wireless LANs operating in the 5 GHz frequency range with a maximum data rate of 54 Mbps. There, are you happy now?)
Scott said you can purchase rights to content at a kiosk that you can use with your phone, car, or reacquire in higher resolution when you get to your home TV, the same material all in different formats, at one price. He knows more about convergence, content protection, silos, and cars as mobile devices than you do, so you can take his word when he says that “business models are not all clear.”
Taking a break, I see that the Westin Bonaventure hotel is a perfect microcosm of the future. It looks good from the outside but it’s confusing as hell on the inside. You can’t get to the pool level from the elevators, the free running machine on one of the third floor pods doesn’t work, and no matter where you stand, you find yourself spying something across the lobby that you can’t get too. I wander the dark hotel at night with a lantern searching for an ideal environment for rational journalism.
Scott Rafer of Speedster is “making money in walled gardens,” delivering information to cell phones entirely through RSS feeds. Please please please don’t ask me to explain what an RSS feed is. Just go here. (Okay, okay, RSS is a method of distributing links or syndicating content in your web site that you’d like others to use. Anybody who can figure out how to turn Disinfotainment Today into an RSS feed is welcome to.)
Scott talked about topix and A9 and Flickr and Skype and by then the guy next to me was leaning the other way so I STILL don’t know what he was talking about.
Scott Fox from Global View Partners dropped phrases like “market segmentation” and “business model” and how to connect to a passionate fan base. How? Push compelling content through a narrow channel without increasing the size of your penis. He advised us to “bypass carriers who think they own customers just because of a flimsy billing device.” Go ahead, pick a standard and rapidly deploy it. And this is really important. Start with an aggrigator, but first find out what an aggrigator is. Anybody out there reparsing distribution channels? Scott’s your guy.
I suppose Rob Enderle is about as good a representative of the Enderle Group as you’re likely to run into at one of these things. He’s a media consultant who warned us of the “vender feeding frenzy,” and that we shouldn’t “come up with technology, then try to find a home for it.” He says that “of all the videoconferencing stores, Microsoft Smart Watch is the only one worth a damn.” Flat rates, yes. Pay as you go, no. Don’t try to change customer behavior unless they’re pissing on your kiosk.
Media Flo sent Jeff Lorbeck because apparently Flo wasn’t available. Boy, was he clean cut, representing equally the suit and tie industries as well as “Virtual Private Networks” and “data optimization.” He was the one astute enough to point out that Casio marketed teeny color sets in the 70s that had failed, presumably because people didn’t want to watch TV on teeny screens.
Gilles Babinet flew in from France which explained his accent. He’s chairman and co-founder of Musiwave, who distribute wholesale MP3s to 18 different countries. He explained that broadcasting video took 100 times the bandwidth of sound, but people were certainly not willing to pay 100 times the price for it, so using bandwidth to measure cost wasn’t necessarily a good thing. He made his business work through a one-way architecture, VAS (Value Added Service), and unfortunately, spoke of stand-alone networks, unicast, multicast, clipcaches, using existing UHF towers, and DVBH air interfaces. He might as well have been speaking in French.
Anthony Bruno didn’t know it but he had a version of my old job at Billboard magazine, covering new technology. He started talking to someone and Susan Mernit said “take this discussion off-line,” meaning don’t make the rest of us listen to it. It’s a phrase I intend on using with my children.
Why did Mitch Ratcliff have to go on and on about “top down broadcasting” and the “audience market” and “distribution hubs” and “Digital Rights Management” (purposely making things inconvenient enough to force the customer to pay for things they could just do themselves) and “the birth of adhocracy” and “Monetizable Moments” and “the edge?” Couldn’t he tell I was baffled? I didn’t want to hear that qwerty keyboards were a thing of the past. I can type almost 100 words per minute, but text messaging slows me down to about five. In-jokes and incomprehensible trivia presented as earthshattering news.
Brian Hecht of kikucall.com has clients like HBO and Absolute and was smart enough not to print his picture. Actors and musicians can subscribe to casting calls through his service, which seems a good idea. Like Heidi Fleiss, his service has a “sophisticated back end” and is “all you can eat.” He championed citizen journalism until he read this.
The next day we all piled into a bus and headed to USC for a tour of their Immersive Media Lab, where we got to see the visible future and all the implications. The walls of the campus are covered in spiffy screens showing all the candidates in the upcoming student election, a technological advance that makes it virtually impossible to tear down your opponent’s posters.
Adam Clayton Powell III took us into a room surrounded by speakers to listen to the next generation of sound, 10.2, which, as you might guess, is twice as good as 5.1. How? The introduction of height and depth without speakers on the ceiling or floor. Out went the lights and it started raining. Not just the sound of rain all around you but the sound of rain FALLING all around you.
Next, we heard an a cappella chorus singing, and an a cappella chorus singing IN A CATHEDRAL, and we could hear the echo above us, then some jazz where the instruments zigged and zagged every which way.
Powell explained that their goal was to be indistinguishable from reality, to integrate the individual components and deliver and experience beyond visual and audio, to approach “the bandwidth of reality,” which is obviously infinite. Quite a task, but since Powell’s father integrated the south, he’s probably up to integrating visual and audio. The National Science foundation is paying for everything and hoping to benefit from potential industrial applications, which we can only hope goes beyond America’s Army, which is currently and depressingly the most popular game on earth. (OPEN HOUSE on Oct. 6 & 7. Check it out here.)
Next we were led upstairs from one A+ student’s desk to another A+ student’s desk to see what they were working on. At the Institute for Robotic Intelligence Systems, I visited the Haptics Department (don’t ask) and used a joystick, though that’s very much the wrong word, that had friction, gravity, and torque when I used it to move objects around in a virtual 3D universe on Wayne Zhu’s computer screen. Thus, doctors could perform delicate surgery from long distance and actually FEEL the difference in pressure as they sliced through internal organs, or a deli in Yonkers could cut the fat off your pastrami in Beverly Hills.
Philippos Mordohai had a 3D Modeling and Recognition system that Homeland Security is going to be interested in. Using a camera with two lenses, one above the other, he could capture your photo facing the camera and turn it into a rotatable 3D picture showing perfect profiles, thus photo recognition software in airports could recognize suspects from the side whom they’d only seen from the front. Thank you very much, Philippos. I’m sure they won’t abuse the power.
Anurag Farnoush showed us a peer-to-peer streaming video system where the more peers there are, the greater the quality, and Zhigang Deng displayed a Data Driven Facial Animation System that takes any vocal audio track and perfectly animates lips and facial features to fit the audio, thus potentially putting thousands of professional animators out of business. Way to go, Zhigang.
Trying to put caricature artists like me out of business was Zhenyao Mo, whose amazing Automatic Portrait Rendering system will not only take any photo portrait and turn it into a caricature but render the caricature in the style of absolutely any artist whose work you care to scan into the computer.
Best of all was the 20/20 classroom where the future of education was thrown in our faces, at least for those in the medical profession, whom we are assured actually retain more information when it’s gathered in this incredible interactive manner. There, on a giant video screen, was a man, Dr. Metal, whose system you could enter interactively, getting smaller and smaller, into the muscles or liver, a fantastic voyage, full of wormholes to travel in and out, where you’re not done till you’ve figured out how to lower your subject’s glucose level, or thousands of other potential problems. Click on things and you get deeper and deeper, sub molecular, chemistry, medicine, all in one amazing immersive educational experience masquerading as a game. I actually saw insulin binding. Still don’t know what it is but I saw it.
Make what you will of the fact that all the A+ students whose work we saw were non-white.
According to focus groups, what’s the one thing people REALLY want on their cell phones? A mirror. Also, unless I’m very much mistaken, Tim Repshire actually said that focus groups say they want less journalists on drugs. Maybe I got it wrong. Journalists say What do you call a focus group at the bottom of the ocean? A good idea.
Then Howard Owens spoke and what a speaker he was. Magnificent. Unfortunately I spilt coffee on my notes about the exact subject he spoke about, but rest assured he was erudite, compelling, forthright, and I didn’t understand a word of it.
Dean Newton was refreshingly honest, saying that Infospace was the “world’s largest provider of crap for your cell phone.” Ringtones ruled the day, along with games and news alerts. He had ringtone charts that were like Billboard charts, hit driven, 40-50% hip hop. He explained that ringtones used to be just polyphonic midi files but new “labeltones” were actual audio clips, making it possible for your phone to ring with George Carlin saying “Hey, asshole, it’s for you.” Yep, through a deal with Laughlink, they’re selling comedy ringers. The number one selling comedy labeltone? Erik Estrada! Don’t ask how many times people paid two bucks to download a wallpaper saying “I heart beer.” He referred to the primary motivating factor in sales as “hostage time,” and clued us in to the unsurprising fact that 30-40% of all mobile media sales in Europe were adult. As soon as there’s a unifying standard for adult verification in America, expect the same.
On a side note, I should mention that the reason VHS won the format war against Beta wasn’t because it was better but because Beta wouldn’t issue licenses to porn distributors, thus cutting themselves out of what became, briefly, almost 90% of the market.
Karen Stephenson is an anthropologist and president of Netform who spoke of behavior patterns, global nomadism, and the effect of mobile media on people who are migratory. She traced the link between drums and smoke signals and cell phones, advising us to think less about broadcasting and more about narrowcatching. In my favorite definition of the day, she described journalists as “anthropologists who write better.”
One advantage mobile media has over the internet is there’s no entering credit card numbers to make purchases. Everything is tied to your phone bill, the central environment that controls everything. Jon Bostrom answered a question I know you’re asking, which one should I buy? Take Jon’s word for it, at this very second, what you want is a Nokia N91, and I’m sure he didn’t say that just because he works for Nokia.
Jon has succeeded in bringing the power of computer Java to cell phones without having to download and install programs, no administration, and no worry about conflicting versions. The Java’s on the server side, with real time device inspection that remotely pushes whatever you need without having to ask. Fifteen million applications are downloaded every month worldwide so I guess it works.
I wouldn’t have known that the peer-to-peer network was known as “the Darknet” if not for Dewayne Hendricks, or that it comprises 60-80% of all traffic, with bit torrents alone comprising 50%. That’s a lot of traffic and it’s not all illegal downloads. There are multiple virtual worlds that can’t be Googled, a genuine underground, full of trusted circles and communities who “create swarms” and share original material.
Hendricks gave a fascinating history of mass communication and locked spectrums, from foot speed to light speed to warp speed, tracing the link from the Titanic to the National Information Infrastructure, from ham operators to Wi-Fi, where everyone’s a transmitter.
Mike Outmesquine showed up with a solar powered backpack, a junction box, and router enabling him to become a “mobile hotspot” and blog or videocast from absolutely anywhere. CSI units will soon be able to transmit fingerprints directly from a crime scene to a central database, or whatever Jerry Bruckheimer wishes.
And it was over.
If you were a speaker and I left you out, I apologize. I couldn’t be there every goddam second. Or you were boring.
I came away thinking that most of it’s going to be irrelivision until the right genius comes along with mobile media content that isn’t regurgitated old media content. Could be you.
I want to thank The Media Center at the American Press Institute for not only allowing me to attend the Mobile Media Event but paying my expenses. It took balls to allow a sarcastic bastard like me in the door and I hope I didn’t let them down.
Closing remarks I never got to make…
Like all of us, I came here to find out how I fit into this incredible new world of mobile media, so if any of you have figured out how I fit into this incredible new world of mobile media, please let me know.