Content companies flock to wireless wonders

With the growing popularity of personal digital assistants – 3Com’s Palm Pilots, Handspring’s Visors and Microsoft’s Pocket PCs and the soon-to-be released Slim Mate from Acer – and their growing capability to wirelessly access the ‘Net, it was inevitable that companies would swarm to develop content for these devices.

Getting updated reports on weather, stock quotes and sports scores is standard when it comes to this kind of content. And as more developers get into the game, more interactive programming is being offered.

For instance, vidgame company Sega Enterprises and Motorola recently announced that in 2001 the two companies will release a cellular phone that will allow users to download games and video from the Internet. In addition, Motorola is working on creating devices that can stream songs in the MP3 format.

Even traditional phone companies are getting into the act. Earlier this year, AT&T spun off a wireless division in an initial public offering. As of earlier this month, AT&T Wireless was trading in the $20 range, based in part on the strength of its Digital PocketNet service for cellular phones.

PocketNet subscribers get text-based information from 40 content providers including CNet.com, Hollywood.com, eBay and Zagat.

Only the beginning

As nifty as all this is, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Industry execs say that this kind of static text-based content is going to get an upgrade within the next three to five years.

“The whole idea that in a mobile information society that you have to be tethered to a phone connection to get critical content is about to change,” says Cherie Gary, a spokeswoman for telecom service Nokia. “Soon, anything you can dream, you can do.”

Cutting-edge pacts being signed between tech companies show that the offerings for handhelds are slowly getting more intriguing.

In April, AtomFilms linked up with Microsoft’s handheld PocketPC devices to offer content. When users go to an AtomFilms ToGo channel on the Netco’s Web site, they will be able to download from a selection of 20 animations and short films by using a media player provided by ActiveSky.

Obviously, progress beyond text-based programming takes time and content that has been developed for fledgling wireless services vary. One of the most downloaded clipping services available for Palm VII wireless devices is a listing of locations for Starbucks Coffee shops.

May Tsoi, a product manager at Palm, says Palm VII users pay for wireless service based on the amount of information that is downloaded – so for the time being, the simpler the content, the better.

“What is going to make a difference is the size of the download and the how fast the device can process information,” Tsoi says.

Industry watchers estimate that the technology to do wireless, streaming video won’t be available for another five years in the United States, where getting the large number of wireless service providers to use one unified technological protocol is nearly an impossible task.

“The tricky thing about these advanced technologies comes down to what can be learned in Competitive Strategy 101,” says Troy Tyler, prexy and CEO of wireless tech company SmartRay.com. “Everyone is so concerned about their own profitability that they are really reluctant to do an advanced technology upgrade because it’s a high-risk move in North America.”

SmartRay recently signed a deal with Showtime Networks in which the cable channel will provide program information to SmartRay subs.

But Robert Tercek, prexy of programming for San Diego-based PacketVideo, says the capability to do video streaming over wireless devices is available now using MPEG4, a compressed video format.

PacketVideo is conducting trials of a device created with Sonera in Finland that gives users video on a handheld screen. PacketVideo has signed agreements with AtomFilms, House of Blues Music and Eveo to Netcast videos to the wireless devices the company is testing that should be available Stateside within the next few years.

Euro cachet

In Europe and Asia, where the technological standards are more consistent, the quality of content can be classified as second generation, Tyler says, with advanced speed and interactivity.

With first-generation technology, for instance, someone who wanted to check how his General Motors stock was doing would have to enter the stock symbol by hand. By the time second-generation content rolls around, the user could just say “General Motors” into a Web-enabled cell phone and the quote would pop up.

With the advent of third-generation content, streaming video and audio will be carried via wireless handheld devices.

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