A group of ambitious companies is looking to bring mobile phone owners -- just barely comfortable with surfing a wireless Web -- into a whole new world of portable multimedia entertainment.
Yet in a market where simple text-based wireless Internet access is limited, companies' plans to play music or movies over wireless networks appear unrealistically futuristic, many sceptics say. Even supporters who speak of the technology's potential in glowing terms concede that US-based companies have yet to figure out how exactly to make their dreams a reality.
Analysts say that these companies are simply too much ahead of the technology curve. Technology adoption could be the largest hurdle. Streaming companies must rely on giant network operators to carry the new multimedia material. The problem is, many wireless networks aren't yet up to the technological challenge, according to many analysts. "Devices are only as good as the networks on which they operate," said Jane Zweig, senior vice president with Herschel Shosteck Associates, a wireless research firm. "The reality today is that... the (networks) are not in place."
Nevertheless, this week can be seen as a milestone in the ambitious yet nascent industry. Technology companies are unveiling the newest versions of their products and visions at the annual Streaming Media West trade show in San Jose, California. At the same time, domestic auctions for wireless airwaves needed to support such multimedia services are getting under way.
The idea of sending music and video over today's slow connections to tiny mobile phone screens has been championed most strongly by based PacketVideo.
For more than a year, the company has been showing its technology to analysts, media firms and carriers. After some initial scepticism, the technology has won over many in the media community. Companies from Sony Pictures to AtomFilms are creating content to be viewed on a tiny cell phone screen.
At this week's trade show, the company took the wraps off an aggregation site, the first thing resembling a multimedia portal for wireless Web access here in the United States. Other companies more geared toward streaming music or audio to cell phones also had a lot to say at the conference.
TuneTo.com said it is beginning to license technology allowing relatively high-quality audio streaming over some slower cell phone connections. Another company, MusicPhone.com, said it plans to release a streaming music service for mobile phones in early March.
Larger companies including RealNetworks have already announced deals to see streaming music technology installed in cell phones.
Once these services reach the market, they will be potentially valuable additions for carriers looking to keep customers on their wireless networks and to shore up slowing subscriber growth figures, some analysts say. "It is the experience that's really going to get the users going," said Iain Gillot, CEO of iGillot Research, a wireless consulting firm. "I think this will ultimately not be a voice world, not a data world. I think what it is going toward is an entertainment model."
But that movement will take time. All of the announcements are happening against the background of this week's US auctions for wireless spectrum, which in part are aimed at giving wireless carriers bigger slices of the airwaves to support next-generation services, such as audio and video streaming.
All of the technologies can function over today's wireless networks. PacketVideo in particular has been aggressive with trials, testing its services with wireless giant Sprint PCS and a long list of overseas carriers.
But the question is whether many carriers are willing to work with a new set of technologies that, while feasible over today's networks, could initially frustrate consumers with poor delivery until high-speed wireless Net access is ready.
Wireless networks make average data connections at about a quarter of the speed of a fast dial-up modem. Compression technology can speed that up somewhat, but even with the extremely rudimentary text-based services available through Sprint PCS, AT&T PocketNet and others, connections still visibly churn while the connection downloads small amounts of data.
Carriers are working to improve their networks, however. AT&T recently announced plans to speed up connections in many regions to near dial-up speed by the end of next year. Other carriers are moving toward so-called third-generation (3G) technology that could rival wired high-speed connections -- but that's still several years away in the United States.
Until 3G arrives on the market, giving customers access to multimedia services will be a tricky marketing manoeuvre, analysts say. "If the operators aren't careful, they're going to set themselves up to disappoint, just as they have with (the first generation) of wireless data," Zweig said. "Kids will be interested in these new types of devices, but they have high expectations ... Carriers risk disappointing exactly the segment they would most appeal to."
The streaming companies are realistic, saying that their message now is about the possibilities of the technology.
"Our job is to capture the imagination," PacketVideo chief executive James Carol said Tuesday, aptly summing up the predicament of all hopeful wireless startups, "not just of consumers and developers, but of the mobile carriers".
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