How to Save Mobile TV

Honestly, it might be too late to save mobile TV, at least in the U.S., where the broadcast network for mobile devices has yet to catch on like it has in Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea. The competition is fierce, and growing almost daily, and mobile broadcast TV service offers few benefits over its competitors.

The first question you might ask is: what is mobile TV? Right now, most mobile TV devices sold are cell phones, and the carriers have shot themselves, and Qualcomm, in the foot over this option. Carriers have for years been pushing their concept of mobile TV, which until recently was really streaming video clips, not true broadcast TV. By the time Qualcomm finally decided to bring its own personal television device to market, the market was so confused about what to expect that nobody bought one. It's a portable device with a rate plan and a subsidy, but it doesn't make phone calls? Carriers had been pushing their lousy on-demand streaming clip service so hard, by the time a real broadcast device hit the street consumers wouldn't trust the mobile TV promise.

The second question you might ask is who needs mobile TV? Obviously it's not something you'd use in your house, not while the big TV is sitting right in front of you. Mobile TV has caught on among commuters. If you're in a country where people take long train rides and wait in line to get on the bus, you're probably going to find mobile TV. In the U.S., many of us drive to work, and plenty of subway commuters find themselves underground more than above it, where reception is weaker. We use planes, not bullet trains, to get from state to state. So, mobile TV already faces some hurdles in simply finding an audience, but these are not insurmountable.

The final question you might ask is why someone would pick mobile TV as their entertainment of choice. Here's the biggest problem mobile TV faces. Chances are, if you have TV reception, you also have cellular network reception. Why watch video on a dedicated mobile TV device when you can simply use a device you already have? I'm not even limiting this argument to cell phones, either. Tablet computers, laptops and portable media players all have plenty of options for streaming video. Between Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and the many network-supported apps hitting the market, it's easy to find television shows to watch. Even last night's TV is available today on the right app or Web site.

Furthermore, pre-recorded videos are even easier. If you can load videos onto your iPad or laptop, why watch mobile TV? If you can bring along a portable DVD player, why bother bringing a mobile TV device, as well?

Mobile TV is better than streaming services because the quality is much better. It's not perfect, but it beats the hell out of streaming clips. If you want to watch a television show, on mobile TV you start watching at the time the show starts, and you watch the entire show all the way through. Unlike clips, which require multiple 5-minute downloads, mobile TV keeps running, and since it uses its own network, it doesn't hog your data plan. This could be a benefit, but it's also the first problem that needs fixing.

Mobile TV could use an on-demand service, but it absolutely needs DVR capabilities. The lack of DVR features is the main reason I would never watch mobile TV. There are commercials. The shows don't start when I want them to start. If I miss something, it's gone, I can't rewind, start over or pause the show. Mobile TV is an anachronism because of all these issues. It's a new (in the U.S. at least) video service, but it behaves like a 60 year old TV.

It would be easy to add real DVR features to a mobile TV device. Just add a few gigabytes of storage and a solid DVR interface, and I'd be much more likely to carry a mobile TV in my pocket. This is an opportunity that TiVo has sorely missed. You can transfer TiVo programs to a mobile device or portable computer, but the process is long, slow and difficult. It's not automatic, it requires separate apps, a powerful computer to encode the video for a mobile and a huge amount of storage space. If I want to watch last night's Jimmy Kimmel or the finale of Lost that I've been saving, there should be an easy way to sit on the train on my morning commute and watch my shows. A mobile TV device with a built in video recorder would be a fine option, offering my saved shows and fresh programming if I get bored of my saved choices. If TiVo offered a portable device with their own interface and features that worked on today's mobile TV networks, then I might consider buying one.

The best way to save mobile TV would be to make customers feel like they need one. There is a limited program selection on mobile TV. It's not simply a rebroadcast of what the networks are showing, it's usually a different lineup. Sometimes it's intelligent, like when the networks rerun last night's late night talk shows in the morning. Often, it's kind of dull.

Mobile TV needs appointment television. If there were one or two fantastic shows that were only available on mobile TV, it would be a real coup for the technology. I'm talking about a water cooler show. Something that makes you feel like you've missed out if you haven't seen it.

I subscribe to HBO not for the movies, but for the couple of original shows that I love. The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Bill Maher's show; these are shows worth paying an extra few bucks a month. Mobile TV needs that kind of programming. A few original shows to get people talking would broaden awareness of the technology, and more importantly, get the TV press talking more about it.

Mobile TV also needs to improve quality dramatically. While it's already better than the streaming services, that's a low bar to set. The video quality needs to be as good as, preferably better than, pre-recorded movies. High definition quality would obviously be a bonus. If I can stream Netflix in high-def on my laptop, I certainly wouldn't want to watch a smaller, mobile TV device that wasn't even DVD quality.

I don't think mobile TV is dead in America, but I don't think it's taking the competition seriously. People will not simply adopt mobile TV because the technology is there, but that's been the attitude of mobile TV broadcasters so far. There has been no real argument for mobile TV against the myriad forms of video content already available. The recent Hulu Plus announcement should only light a bigger fire under the mobile TV movement, because Hulu is now bringing real, network television to mobile devices. If mobile TV can't offer a service that is better than what we already have, there's no reason for it to exist.