Watch your palm

A start-up brings streaming video to Palm Pilots on the cheap

With owners of handheld devices split between the affordable Palm Pilot and more costly Microsoft Pocket PC devices, class warfare has erupted within the wireless streaming world, as one start-up is building its technology base around a more cheaper, less reliable, network.

San Jose-based Firepad is focused on delivering watchable video to the Palm Pilot. And it’s not a surprise why.

At a cost of roughly $150, the Palm Pilot or devices like the Sony Clie and Handspring Visor, which operate on Palm’s operating system, make up the bulk of handheld sales in the U.S. The main competitor: Microsoft’s Pocket PCs from Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Casio that cost $500.

Thus Firepad is banking that cost-conscious Palm owners would rather suffer through clunky video streams delivered on a user-friendly device, than to pay the price of receiving high-speed streams too expensive for daily use.

But Firepad’s biz plan flies in the face of emerging powerhouse PacketVideo,which offers a better streaming product on Microsoft’s higher-end Windows-driven devices.

“We’re closer than PacketVideo to delivering streams to the mass market — our whole company is built around delivering software on cheaper hardware,” says Bill Mitchell, CEO of Firepad. “PacketVideo delivers on systems that are much faster than what we deliver, but the cost is much higher for their services. The only consumer devices that are affordable are really in the Palm devices.”

Mitchell says that the winner in the streaming war will be the company that develops a ubiquitous network that operates with nearly every content provider on the Web and reaches mass audiences — the same way that RealNetworks, Microsoft, and Quicktime offer multimedia access for the PC.

Right now, the handheld market doesn’t have any real competition yet and is dominated by Palm, despite Microsoft’s recent foray into the fray. So the wireless streaming winner could very well be determined in the next year.

“Usability is defined by what the user has to use it, and the price point has to be affordable for everyone,” Mitchell says. “Basically, there is no support for multimedia in the Palm OS, so we are essentially that capability.”

Users download the FireViewer application and install it on any handheld device that runs on the Palm operating system. For a monthly $29.95 fee, the wireless streaming service allows users to access any content that resides on their desktop. Files can also be quickly transferred between the PC and PDA by hot synching the devices together.

But content providers have to install the FireProducer server software on their systems before they can deliver content to Palm devices. In other words, until everyone adopts the Firepad technology, the content just isn’t there yet.

Even if the content is available, there is the continuing problem of delivering a multimedia stream over an undeveloped wireless network. Today, Firepad delivers streaming video at five frames per second, which is about six times slower than your television set.

Watching a video on a Palm device, for example, resembles a cross between block animation and fast-moving still pictures, much like the original opening for MTV. But “The Mask of Zorro,” which Firepad has been using to demonstrate its technology, is still surprisingly watchable — especially when naysayers have long said that video could never be shown on a Palm Pilot.

However, because of the inherent clunkiness with wireless streaming systems, few expect the market to explode on the American scene anytime soon or see auds rush away from their TVs or PCs to get the latest sports highlights or financial news streamed to their handhelds.

Seamus McAteer, a Jupiter Media Metrix research fellow, says it would take a miracle for consumer demand and technology to reach a critical mass within the next five years, which means that companies like Firepad and PacketVideo are simply preparing for the future.

“Portable TV sets were made available in the ’70s and they weren’t that popular then, and I don’t expect this to be much different,” says McAteer. “People have a quality-of-service expectation, and they watch a 30-frame-per-second video on their television for free. Asking consumers to pay per minute to view choppy, 8-frames-per-second video on a handheld device is a bit of stretch.”

The good news for early adopters is that when higher-speed networks roll out, Firepad will be able to deliver better streams to handhelds. The 3G wireless network promises to allow wireless streams to operate at roughly 20 frames a second, and the interim 2.5G network set to be deployed by Sprint PCS at the end of this year promises the streaming equivalent of a 56K modem.

“Television executives are resting fairly easy,” says McAteer. “Sometimes technology moves much faster than the market rationale, or the business rationale. In this instance the technology isn’t even there.”