Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A hype revival of vintage mobile video communication in MWC 2011

Let's get back to 2004, the hype in Mobile World Congress for the first time in Barcelona is about video communication. Thanks to 3G and embedded cameras in the mobile phones, people can proceed to a mobile video call from their device. It's huge. Telecom operators imagine gateways to enable subscribers to proceed with video call between a mobile and a PC to compensate the low numbers of nascent 3G phones. Two years after, this turns to be a failure. Damned, consumers are not using it.

Several reasons have been given at that time : cameras not powerful enough, screen definition too low, requirement of "high quality real time bandwidth", low willingness to use due to high intrusiveness and, finally, too difficult to take a continuous movie of its own image in good condition for the other party (sun, image stability, etc...).

2011, Mobile World Congress, perhaps one of the last time in Barcelona. The hype is back on ... mobile video communication. What can explain the revival ?

Some progress have been done on the technology side, especially on the devices now much more powerful in terms of CPU, screen and camera. Moreover, Skype, which has largely contributed to popular usage PC-2-PC of video, is everyday increasing its penetration on mobile phones.

However, the major factor could be the support of the magician Steve Jobs through Facetime, the video communication service from Apple. US investors suddenly start to poor money in these technologies. Of course, these "dollar cow-boys" did not necessarily participated to the hype 8 years ago since US was still at that time an underdeveloped country in terms of mobile usage, fighting to make CDMA EVDO operational.

Despite device technology evolutions and financial support, some challenge remain on the way to a large penetration of this service on mobile phone. Video communication still is intrusive and image stability did not significantly improve when you have your mobile in your hand.
Another main hurdle - requirement for a high quality network - will still exist for several years. Watching Youtube, users can benefit from buffering in the device, which is not possible with real time communication. This thus requires a continuous quality and bandwidth, which is challenging for a good quality. Just have a look on your device how many times you switch from GPRS (G) to Edge (E) to 3G (3G) to HSDPA (H) and you will see the stability of the data network, especially when you move one meter in your office or when your neighbor starts watching Youtube (because you share the cell data capacity with your neighbors, you like it or not ;-).
Moreover, in terms usage, some analysts state that consumers would use the service to show what is around. Capability to record a video and send it by MMS or email (on smartphones) exists for years. MMS video traffic is very low due to high price for upload of large volume. Imagine the price range when telecom operators want to guarantee a higher quality all along the call.
Finally, since telecom operators face problems with huge data traffic generated by smartphones and USB dongles, they will normally price the video call higher than voice call. Who is willing to pay more for a good quality video call ? It's true that Skype video calls are used on fixed Internet but using video or not is always the same zero price. Willingness to pay is probably the final killer of mobile video communication.
And if some operators would offer video call service at the price of voice calls in order to maintain price of a voice/video call revenues, they would significantly increase their cost without increasing the revenues. Better use this bandwidth to offer more low consumption services.

I had the chance to live the complete previous cycle of mobile video communication. We thought at the beginning that we were very successful since we signed a lot of contracts with major telecom operators but consumers brought us back on earth a bit later.
So, if you are in this business, have fun but do not expect your venture to be funded for a long time. Dollar cow-boys will probably stop soon pooring money in bottomless pit when they will discover the lack of fruits and remaining hurdles of previous experiences.
There are probably much better ideas for new telecom services, focused on low bandwidth for higher profitability of the whole value chain.

Future will say.

Benoit Quirynen

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