Mobile TV: Better Options Coming Soon

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The iPhone got people thinking that watching TV on a phone could be more (and better) than a mere novelty. Many of them began buying TV and movies from the iTunes store to watch on the iPhone.

iPhone apps that stream video began showing up in the App Store more than a year ago, but aside from a few live sports apps (like the awesome, the quality of general-interest video streaming apps for the iPhone hasn’t been great. For many developers, iPhone has been the mobile platform of choice, so streaming video apps for other platforms, including Android, are even scarcer.

But mobile video in the United States is a sleeping giant that is just now waking up.

Why now? More people own smartphones and other advanced mobile devices (such as e-book readers and tablet PCs), and they want to watch video on those devices. Wireless networks are getting faster and more reliable, and the launch of Apple’s iPad certainly added to the excitement around watching videos in the kitchen or on the bus or wherever. Feeding the momentum are advertisers, who see mobile video as a great opportunity for ad placement.

As demand heats up, a number of well-moneyed companies are moving quickly to establish themselves as the go-to provider of mobile streaming video--aiming to become the “Hulu of mobile.” Which ones are the main contenders?


News Corp. subsidiary Fox Mobile Group is cooking up a mobile video service called Bitbop that shows some promise. Announced at CTIA in March, the service will run as a $10-a-month app on iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry phones, and will be available from all major U.S. wireless networks. Users will be able to connect to the service via either 3G or Wi-Fi, and will be able to stream content or download it to their phones temporarily.

Bitbop, however, has not yet submitted its iPhone app to the App Store for approval. In fact, Bitbop plans to buck the trend and make its service available first on Android and/or BlackBerry devices, not on the iPhone. The iPhone will likely be the third phone to get a Bitbop app, a Bitbop spokesperson told me. The service will probably debut this summer on an as-yet-unnamed Android or BlackBerry phone.

Regardless of what mobile platform it runs on, Bitbop already has a couple of important advantages: First, it will have access to all of Fox's content, as well as to the content of Fox partners such as NBC Universal and Discovery.Second, Bitbop will presumably have access to Fox's deep pockets to buy additional content, develop its mobile delivery platform, and pay for advanced methods of content delivery to mobile devices.


Another deep-pocketed entrant in the mobile video arena is the mobile chipmaker Qualcomm, which is behind the FLO TV mobile video service. FLO TV uses its own wireless network (not a 3G network) with its own wireless spectrum to distribute video. This arrangement could be an attractive to wireless carriers: Since FLO TV is delivered over a separate network, it could alleviate some of the burden that high-bandwidth apps such as video are placing and will continue to place on 3G networks.

In order for FLO TV to work on a given handset, however, the device must contain a special FLO TV chip within its shell. So FLO TV can't simply develop apps for all the mobile platforms and call it a day. It must work directly with the handset makers and the carriers to get the special Qualcomm chip inside each phone.

Mophie's Juice Pack TV sleeve for the iPhone.
There's no FLO TV chip in the iPhone, but FLO TV is working with an accessories company called Mophie to put the chip in a sleeve (called the Juice Pack TV) for the iPhone and the iPod Touch that will catch the signal for the device. The sleeves aren't yet available, and iPhone/iPod Touch users must also grab an accompanying free FLO TV app from the App Store.

But FLO TV wants to deliver its video service more broadly to a greater number of smartphones--including, for instance, Verizon's recently launched HTC Imagio. Expect to see FLO TV showing up on more handsets and more carrier networks in the next two quarters.


MobiTV, perhaps today's the most carrier-entrenched mobile video service, recently released a full-blown app for the iPhone and the iPod Touch.

MobiTV’s free app streams live content such as ABC News, as well as on-demand stuff from the likes of Fox News, NBC News, and NBC Sports. But to get a decent selection of video, you’ll have to buy one of MobiTV’s one-, three-, or six-month packages (priced at $10, $25, and $45, respectively), which feature 8 channels of live TV and more than 30 channels of on-demand content. As Android continues to gain steam, you can expect to see a similar MobiTV app in the Android Market.

MobiTV has launched other apps for iPhone, most of them focused on single-focus sporting events like Notre Dame football, college hoops, and Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts.

MobiTV on the iPhone. Image: MobiTV
MobiTV's main business consists of aggregating and serving up video content on mobile phones through direct partnerships with wireless carriers. The company (launched in 1999) began performing this service in 2003, and it now has about 9 million subscribers.

You can find MobiTV on phones from AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile, and several smaller, regional networks such as Alltel. In some cases, MobiTV is branded something else, like "Sprint TV"; in others, the service shows up on the phone under the MobiTV brand. Typically, the user downloads a piece of MobiTV software to their phone to get the service, which usually costs about $10 per month.

MobiTV announced at the Consumer Electronics Show this year that it plans to add free local broadcast TV content to its service at some point, as a complement to its national subscription-based and premium content. No word on when “mixTV”, as MobiTV calls it, will become available to consumers.

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