Tevye, the much loved protagonist of Fiddler on the Roof, was full of wisdom. "A bird may love a fish," he memorably said, "but where would they build a home together?"
Religious overtones aside, that quotation came to mind over the past few weeks, when Telstra debuted quite a significant service -- the delivery of Foxtel TV channels over its Next G mobile network.
The bird, of course, is the mobile phone in this metaphor -- flighty, mobile, constrained to no place. The fish is stuck in its big pond (pardon the pun), swimming around and around and going nowhere in particular. That would be Foxtel. And the home they build, it now appears, is on your mobile phone.
Foxtel by Mobile is one of those services that sounds great in theory but explores a somewhat awkward middle ground. One the one hand, it's great for some people to have a new way of using their commuting time, or break time, or whatever other time they have on their hands. Delivery of video on demand to mobiles -- and not just video, but relevant video from channels people actually want to watch -- is a great step forward compared with the relatively limited offerings that have typified mobile video in the past.
Of course, actually using the service involves some serious compromises -- leaning in close to pick out the images moving on the small, small screen. If you squint just right, and put on racing blinkers, you'll be able to pretend that the video actually looks something like it would on your TV.
The comment was made a while back that I would never say something nice about Telstra, and here I will prove them wrong: mobile Foxtel is a great accomplishment and Telstra is to be commended for actually making it happen.
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Not only has it delivered a video on demand service but its integration with Foxtel iQ -- you can use the mobile phone to tell your iQ device to record a particular program, which is very cool -- is a great example of the cool stuff that becomes possible in the great big world of convergence. I'm not sure it is relevant for me personally, but there will be lots of people who love the idea of taking their TV -- or whatever subset of TV programming Telstra is offering -- with them. It certainly can't hurt Telstra's Next G story.
Or can it? Although it's a great marketing gimmick, Telstra has just given itself what could potentially become a major problem for Next G. The company has been spruiking the network as the solution to all that ails Australia's mobile subscribers -- a mechanism for carrying voice, videoconferencing traffic, broadband Internet, and now on-demand video.
Even though the lower resolution and quality of mobile video mean it doesn't require as much bandwidth as conventional digital TV, the multiplier effect could become a major problem for Telstra.
With so many customers finding new ways to chew through their mobile bandwidth, does Telstra really have enough radiofrequency spectrum available to keep ahead of demand? It's great to say the network supports voice, for example, but providing whomping fast broadband connections and fat video streams is going to exact a toll on Telstra's base stations and backhaul networks.
Video is already notoriously flaky over mobile networks; it only works in some places, and only works well in even fewer places. I remember clearly sitting on the St Kilda foreshore waiting several minutes for a music video to download onto a 3G phone, wondering whether it was really worth all the effort.
Compound this problem many times, and Telstra could find itself racing to catch its own tail. If its network investment doesn't keep up with demand, the quality of the service delivered -- which, reviews tell us, is only just fast enough to avoid jittering most of the time -- may well suffer. And that's not only bad for the frustrated customers, but it will cast a pall over the whole idea of mobile video.
I also have to wonder about the features of the service. Telstra is in a great position to leverage its popular iQ box by allowing mobile subscribers to watch their recorded videos on their mobiles, but as far as I know this feature isn't actually part of the package; you're limited to 12 channels, several of which loop the same content over and over.
Competing services such as Orb, which is available over 3's network, let you use your mobile to view content from your own computer while you're out; I haven't used it personally, so I can't vouch for the quality. Other competing mobile TV services include the government's recently allotted Channel A and B, one of which is mooted to be split into up to 30 mobile TV channels that would be available to anyone, anywhere.
With two video-on-mobile offerings in the market already and more to come, these services are tantalising if nothing else -- as long as carriers can get their offerings right. Mobile TV could flounder or it could soar; Telstra's biggest issues now are finding its market, expanding its content offerings, and making sure its marketing staff don't set expectations so high that Next G falls flat on its face.
Have you rushed out to subscribe to Foxtel by Mobile? What do you think? Is this a long-term, compelling offering or just a pointless gimmick?