I got thinking about the Video phone thing when I saw an item today on the BBC about 3GSM in Barcelona. Despite the rep's insistence that video wasn't the be all and end all of 3G and that operators would be offering services, he then went on to talk exclusively about video clips, TV programmes, video calls and not a single word about services that 3G might be able to implement.
It reminded me of all the talk in the past about how people could get services to their cell phones and the ones quoted were always share prices, weather and TV guides. And deep down we knew that, like Iridium phones, the demand for those services was, and is trivial beyond words.
I think I can see how we keep gravitating back to the idea of video calls and equally, I think I can see why, in fact, we really aren't interested.
Video calls are a technology driven outcome, as companies compete to offer ever more technical enhancements to their products, be they handsets or networks, inevitably the race becomes one of gadgets at one end and bandwidth at the other. Cramming the most possible functions into the smallest handset connected to the fattest pipe is the only technologically way they have of competing because there is an absolute limit to the size game unless we want to have the think surgically implanted.
The challenge then is to find streams that eat the broader bandwidth so we go from skinny 3k voice calls to higher fi music and eventually we are forced to look at video as the only kind of stream that doesn't fit into a smaller pipe and, making a virtue of necessity, they announce mobile video as the next killer app.
From a purely human psychological perspective video phones encroach nastily on an area that we are very uncomfortable in. Many people don't like having others take photos of them, the idea that turning a camera on themselves just so someone else can watch them talk is terrifying. Remember that public speaking is one of the most frightening things most people ever contemplate and most of them head for the hills.
Entailed in public speaking are two concepts that scare us a lot, witness and record. I've seen it for years as a broadcaster, slap a microphone in front of the most voluble opinionated joker and they turn instantly into bumbling dribbling idiots. People hate the idea that their words are being recorded and witnessed by people somewhere outside their control. Cameras are even worse, hence the many hours of video garbage shot doing vox pops for TV.
The other personal issue is privacy; holding a device to our ears, or talking into an earpiece cord is fine, we even forget how public we are and rave on at the top of our voices because the intimacy of the process acts as a security blanket. But force us to hold the device out in front of us, pointing in our direction, while we talk into it, and the whole thing gets disturbingly demonstrative and most of us ain't. Oh, and while we're at it, making sure that it IS pointed at our faces while we talk, and at the same time watch the other person on the screen and gesturing with it all and we need to be exhibitionist octopuses before it will work, let alone be a selling point.
The other game is downloading video and here there is a whole new set of problems.
The first is that we have followed with video/TV the same trajectory as we did with music, a steadily rising level of technical excellence until we reached, with CD in the audio case and flat screen TV in the other case, a level of technical reproduction that exceeded both our sensory capacities and the inherent quality of the content.
The music business underestimated the threat of MP3 because it was a lower technical standard than CD and, since all "progress" had been measured in technical terms thus far, they assumed that technical standards was what we wanted because that is what they could provide.
But it wasn't. MP3 is a perfectly acceptable technical quality because most music is worth listening to at about that standard and most of us can't hear the difference. I have three flavours of tinnitis myself and my top end cilia are long dead. Younger people, brought up in a high volume world are probably worse off than me.
Same with video. One reason we haven't rushed to mortgage our souls for digital is that the quality of the content is pretty well matched by the visual reproduction of a good flat screen TV, and that's it.
On the other hand, nobody is going back to 78's in audio and we sure as hell aren't flocking to 3cm screens to watch the footy. And we wont, they both fail on the other end of the content/ technical quality continuum.
Network operators are planting themselves in a Pareto trap if they depend on "content" to make a profit. They will find themselves drawn inexorably into having on tap the kind of "content" they think their customers might want. Far from charging content providers for the delivery, they will end up having to buy it themselves; and then they will stuck with the reality that 80% of the revenue comes from 20% of the content, while the other 80% of the content is the profit.
Not only will it be a hiding to nothing on the buying end, it still wont deliver the kind of transaction volume that will turn a profit for the network. Nevertheless we still get people like Bill Gajda, chief marketing officer, GSM Association delivering a page of sleeping draft that keeps saying;
The fact that we can now watch television on the mobile phone is an arresting one. Technologically, it's brilliant. As a new market medium, it's unassailable. Yet mobile TV is just one application from a whole new armoury of content and services becoming available to the mobile user.
Yet can't, in several hundred words, find a single one to mention beyond TV to your mobile. In language that, frankly doesn't belong in polite company. On the other hand Andy Oram at O'Reilly Media gets it pretty well right. Network Neutrality and an Internet with Vision
Meanwhile the guys at FON are in the process of implementing David Reed's realisation that there will be no business case at all when each new connection to the network brings more bandwidth than it uses.