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Apps could be a nail in the coffin for broadcast mobile television

The biggest problem for mobile TV is that it emerged between 2004 and 2006, when the media industry was beginnin to change. Technical glitches also abound

By Tarmo Virki  /  REUTERS , HELSINKI

A ‘‘myMobileTV (DVB-H)’’ by Sagem is displayed during the Mobile World Congress (formerly 3GSM World Congress) in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb. 11 last year.

PHOTO: REUTERS

For years it was the talk of the wireless industry: Beaming TV to the world’s 4 billion cellphones would be the icon of the digital age. Now, just three letters are hastening the demise of that vision: App.

Short for “application,” the programs people download from online stores to run on their portable phones have enabled consumers to choose for themselves which moving pictures to take in when they are on the go.

As Facebook and Twitter disrupt business models for mainstream media — and on the platform that’s a lifestyle statement for young adults — the one-size-fits-all approach of broadcast mobile TV got stuck before it even properly took off.

“It is a financial disaster,” said John Strand, a consultant who has followed the mobile industry closely for more than 12 years. “It’s a nice product, but the customers won’t pay for it.”

One way to see why not is to watch young Brazilian footballers knocking a soccer ball around in the Helsinki Cup. A youth tournament currently playing in the Finnish capital, it’s hardly a world event in the conventional sense.

But the video clips they are uploading from their phones will run on their parents’ mobiles or PCs back home.

“It’s even easier than with still images, and a much nicer and expressive way to tell them the news from over here,” said David da Silva, spokesman for the team from Brazil.

The service they are using comes from a Web site which offers users the chance to send video from cellphones to their own TV channels on the Web. A small venture, it is one of thousands of offerings from the likes of Apple, Nokia, Research in Motion and many others letting users drive their mobile entertainment.

BBC World and Al Jazeera English have recently launched apps for consumers to watch real-time news on their iPhones, through a London-based company, Livestation.

“This is mobile TV 2.0 — completely reinvented and redesigned and I think it’s going to overtake the old models very very rapidly,” Livestation CEO Matteo Berlucchi said.

Perhaps the best illustration of the fast-shifting outlook is the history of forecasts for the market. Strategy Analytics now expects the mobile TV broadcasting market to total US$280 million next year. Only three years ago the firm forecast the market to reach US$5.4 billion next year.

“We’ve downgraded our forecast a fair bit to reflect the slower-than-anticipated rollout of services and limited momentum from carriers and broadcasters,” Strategy Analytics analyst Nitesh Patel said.

“Application and widget stores and mobile internet access have taken priority over mobile broadcast,” Patel said.

It’s an important distinction, said Andrew Bud, Chairman of the Mobile Entertainment Forum (MEF), a London-based trade association for the mobile media industry. He was talking about mobile TV — which is broadcast — as opposed to mobile video, which you load onto your device.

“Mobile TV is all about real-time, linear transmission ... where the timing of the programming was set by the broadcaster and the consumer would dip in and dip out,” he said.

“Mobile video is much more about video-on-demand. It gives the consumer much more freedom. It’s also a little less stressful on the mobile networks,” he said.

A survey by KPMG and the MEF found that nearly 40 percent of consumers had at one time watched a piece of mobile video on their handset: 52 percent said the experience was satisfying, against 38 percent of a much smaller number of users who said they had tried broadcast mobile TV.

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