Alan Cane: I have glimpsed the future over a fellow traveller’s shoulder

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The future is already working on London Underground’s Northern Line – and all its other lines, for all I know.

Last week, I rode next to someone watching a movie on a mobile phone, my first encounter with the phenomenon. The next day, the experience was repeated: different individual, different device, possibly the same movie – it’s hard to tell.

All of which suggests that something is happening here, even if I don’t know what it is. But then neither did the audience and speakers at an FT conference this month. Almost 60 speakers gave their views over two days on the future of mobile communications without coming to a genuine consensus on what consumers will want in the way of content on the move and the kind of devices on which to display it.

This kind of uncertainty spells frustration and expense for suppliers and consumers. Suppliers might invest heavily in a technology which does not take off or fail to invest in a market leader: consumers face an unwelcome choice among competing, incompatible products.

There were some issues on which the conference was almost universally agreed. The continuing importance and ubiquity of voice was a given; the discussion was really about receiving music and moving images when out and about. It was generally accepted that the quality of the content would be crucial but that while there could be a niche market for serious content such as news and current affairs, mobile content would be mostly about entertainment.

And pace my video-viewing fellow traveller, the consumers of mobile entertainment want snacks rather than main meals: music video clips rather than The Sound of Music, two minutes of Pacman rather than a whole snooker match. They want content tailored to their tastes and they want to find it quickly – which is going to mean lots of overtime for browser writers.

They will, of course, be prepared to pay but by subscription rather than pay-per-view.

If it happens, that is. The consultancy Continental Research has been examining the convergence of media platforms. It is UK research but the findings could probably be extrapolated elsewhere. It found, for example, that of the total population aged 16 and over, 11.4 per cent had used the internet over a mobile phone compared with 59 per cent over a computer (which means that just under 40 per cent of the population have still to find their way to the information superhighway).

Early mobile internet access, the infamous WAP technology, was oversold, Continental finds: “Until the limitations imposed by a small screen and finite content are overcome, we don’t expect to see rapid growth in internet usage via mobiles.”

Television, however, is another screen of pixels. Continental’s survey showed only 1.9 per cent of the population had watched TV on their mobile phone and that the situation is not going to change quickly: “Only 1 per cent of those not currently watching television via their mobile phone say they are likely or almost certain to do so in the next 12 months, suggesting that pent-up demand for this service is very limited.”

Another consultancy, Deloitte, has been looking ahead to 2010: it predicts only marginal changes in viewing and listening habits, although it agrees that portable devices may alter consumer habits. “Consumers may increasingly be drawn to entertainment that can be consumed in small portions ... by 2010 there may well be a much wider variety of products and services that are designed specifically to provide entertainment in small doses,” it says.

But for the most iconoclastic view of the future, we turn to Intercasting Corporation, a two-year-old, San Diego-based company that aims to turn individuals with cellular phones into outside broadcast units.

“Hardly a ‘phone’ any more, it is a personal media device,” ICC declares. “In a few years, there will be more than a billion people walking around with the equivalent of a radio station, film studio and broadcast network in their pockets ... every person becomes a producer of their own interactive channel to inform, entertain, interact and connect with the world around them.” It calls it “socially generated content”.

Essentially, ICC is advocating and providing technology for mobile, video-based blogging. Just as text bloggers are thought to threaten conventional newspapers and magazines, so ICC sees socially generated content causing a revolution within Big Media.

Well, perhaps. I incline towards the Deloitte view that a typical day in 2010 will not feel much different from today.

But that guy on the Tube ...

*Convergence Report Spring 2006. Continental Research £400 ex-VAT.
**Eye to the Future. Deloitte 2006 gratis.

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