SBJ/April 10 - 16, 2006/This Weeks News

Confusion slows pace of wireless

The wireless industry gave itself a dose of tough love at its top annual conference in Las Vegas last week, calling for an end to confusing device interfaces that executives and analysts say are prohibiting development and distribution of high-end mobile content.

Amid a frenzied atmosphere likened to Internet conferences of the late 1990s, the theme around this year’s CTIA Wireless show was that the sweeping rush to offer high-end, branded content — including video, audio and interactive applications from each of the major sports leagues — is still far outdistancing users’ ability to access, buy and use it.

“The purchase experience is still pretty terrible,” said Minard Hamilton, executive vice president of sales and marketing for EA Mobile, at the show, attended by more than 40,000 people. “We still need to overdeliver to the early adopters to get people to come back.”

Added Harry Kargman, president of Kargo, a New York developer of wireless content applications, including a GameDay sports news service sold through Verizon and Cingular, “Once it gets really simple to buy, one-click type of stuff, you’ll see the market take shape. We’re not there yet.”

Over the last two years, major carriers such as Cingular and Verizon have significantly bulked up their enhanced-content offerings, making features such as real-time game tracking a standard part of mobile life. But while mobile content purchases through carrier-supported portals such as Verizon’s V-Cast currently make up two-thirds of the domestic market for content purchases, users are actually three times as interested in finding content outside those portals, according to research done by the Yankee Group.

That separation between user interest and easy availability leaves key content owners such as the sports leagues in a more difficult position to reach and educate consumers.

“There’s just no uniform experience for users to access our content, particularly since mobile is still a very fragmented, technically difficult space in which to work,” said Adam Ritter, vice president, wireless, for MLB Advanced Media, which is seeking to develop a video subscription service for live games on mobile to match its popular, PC-based product. “And we don’t yet have a lot of good data on what people will actually buy.”

Pricing is also seen as an impediment to mobile content distribution, with most analysts agreeing that around $15 per month represents a soft ceiling, but the bigger issue is still one of user education and awareness. Improvements to the content purchase experience are considered inevitable, but industry patience is wearing thin.

“The user purchase process has been sort of static for the last four years,” Hamilton said.

Mobile ESPN, which debuted early this year, is seen as a trailblazer in content delivery, with its bevy of scores, video and other data a simple button-push away and not hidden behind a separate, paid wall. The service, however, has struggled to find mass acceptance amid criticism of its costs, and ESPN executives recently called Mobile ESPN “a work in progress.”

“It may be a fantastic experience, but nobody knows it because nobody’s buying it,” said Chris Black, director of mobile marketing and interactive media for Cingular.

Sales figures for Mobile ESPN to date have not been released, but the price of the handset was recently lowered to $99, putting it in better competition with other high-end devices, such as the Motorola RAZR. A new series of ads running on ESPN highlights the functionality of the phone, and the sales channel for the service has been bulked up, with the phones set to find their way into Sprint brick-and-mortar stores by the summer.

“We’re still very confident going forward,” said Chris LaPlaca, ESPN senior vice president of consumer communications. “We’ve planted the flag and have done a few things to adapt to the market. … The idea is not to grow this crazily but in a real and meaningful way.”

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