Mobile Media Needs To Be Set Free


This morning’s introduction of HTC’s newest handset, the Sensation 4G, really got my gadget juices flowing. How could they not when I saw a smartphone that’s fully loaded to quickly handle nearly any activity thanks to a dual-core processor, fast mobile broadband connectivity, high-resolution display and 1080p video recording capabilities?

The software side looks great as well due to an advanced version of the Sense user interface. But I’m actually bummed out by the new HTC Watch video service because it’s not solving a problem, it’s actually adding to a problem: we have too many disparate video ecosystems in the mobile space and more of them on the way.

Don’t believe me? Here’s the first Twitter reaction from Romit Mehta on HTC’s new handset and video store, which I think sums up the situation nicely:

I agree with Mehta: we really don’t need another video store and I wish the video industry would find a way to do what its peers in the music space grudgingly did by reducing the amount of protected media. A few years back, any song you purchased came with DRM, or Digital Rights Management protection, but now consumers can purchase DRM-free MP3 files from Apple, Amazon and others.

The same can’t be said of commercially produced television and movie media, most of which is heavily protected so it can’t be copied. But that’s only half of the problem, because each new video store that opens further reduces the number of devices you can play such video content upon. HTC Watch will rent or sell you videos, but do you think you’ll be able to transfer them to a non-HTC device? Not likely.

The same goes for the Samsung Media Hub, coming to both the Samsung Player devices and the new Samsung Galaxy S II handset: you can watch content from the Samsung store, but not transfer it to another mobile device. And the biggest example of them all is the Apple iTunes Store which limits video playback to a certain number of authorized Apple computers, iOS devices or through Apple TV. A growing number of services are allowing the content to be piped to a television set, but that’s a recent development and doesn’t help when you’re on the go.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it does! Netflix is one of the few cross-platform video distributors, supporting Apple’s iOS devices, desktop browsers and even the new Microsoft Windows Phone 7 devices. But if you have an Android device, which is currently the top selling smartphone platform, you’re out of luck. Why? Because there’s no hardware standard used by Android that guarantees the Netflix DRM will work effectively. There will be, according to the company, but it may be limited to devices with certain processors in the future, meaning current Android handset owners may get nothing but a screen full of static.

The entire digital video debacle is akin to purchasing a television from Sony only to find that certain TV programs aren’t available to watch unless you had bought a set from Panasonic. Perhaps that’s a overly crude analogy, but there’s merit in it. One could argue a similar situation with smartphone apps: once you pick a platform, you only get the apps that developers choose to support, so not every app will be available across mobile operating systems. There’s even a lock-in fee associated with smartphone apps. But apps are created to run on different software platforms. In contrast, video is universal and it’s content, not an app. As a result, mobile video shouldn’t be limited to certain devices or platforms by increasing the number of video stores.

The web is the greatest distribution network ever, especially when it comes to content because we can all be broadcasters to a degree. It’s time for content providers to embrace the web and set our mobile media free because limiting it to certain platforms or handsets is likely also limiting sales: the more freedom consumers have to move content around to the time, place and device of their choosing, the more apt they are to rent or buy that video. Oh and not to rush the content providers and video distribution business, but they might want to do this before the “media tablet” sales really take off so we can start watching video on our handset from one vendor and finish it later on a tablet from another. Call me a cranky movie critic if you will, but I’d say such a situation would be quite enjoyable.

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