As we just start to dig into 2010 (and dig out of snowstorms), it’s somewhat appropriate that—by all educated guesses and tech pundit prognostications—this could very well be the year that mobile data goes into hyperdrive. Sure, we’re all enjoying our 3G- and WiFi-enabled iPhones, Blackberries and other like devices. And the apps are nice. But this year marks the beginning of the 4G world, which depending on who you ask can mean a number of things. To the cable industry, this is largely about WiMax technology and Clear and the hope that Sprint can make it work despite tough competition. For the telcos, it’s largely a question of deploying LTE technology, which promises to create mobile networks that theoretically could match current wired broadband speeds. Not to go overboard here, but this is pretty significant. The 3G world has given us a taste of what relatively fast data networks can mean for media consumption, especially video. The 4G world could be a feast that takes off the training wheels and really blows up the media content world. Maybe even in a good way.
Think about the convergence of factors conspiring to make all of this happen this year. First of all, Verizon and AT&T are furiously building out LTE networks with plans to have significant coverage by year-end or next year at the latest. Sprint is equally jazzed about WiMax, even though most analysts think LTE will eventually become the technology of choice. When it comes to media consumption, it doesn’t really matter. Both offer a new level of speed that consumers will use to consume media content. What other reason are such speeds necessary? To check email? To browse Web sites? No. All of the frantic network upgrades out there are for one purpose: To feed consumers’ insatiable demand for data-heavy activities like watching video and, increasingly, user-generated media creation that ends up flowing upstream over those same networks through apps like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and many others. Consumer expectations have largely gotten ahead of wireless networks. Now, carriers are trying to catch up. And that includes cable, whose TV Everywhere strategy is largely predicated on a mobile component to the “I need it anywhere and anytime” mentality of the 21st century media consumer.
Another big factor: Device makers have basically caught up to the iPhone. Most have matched it in raw functionality. Some have exceeded it by certain technical measures. Yes, Apple was literally years ahead of everyone when it launched the first iPhone in 2007; it’s not anymore. Now, it’s feeding off of Apple fan loyalty and, of course, a certain elegance and operating system stability (as well as an iTunes content experience) that others have yet to match. Whether the iPhone remains the must-have device or whether companies like Samsung and Palm gain enough ground to take the lead is anyone’s guess. On the operating system side, Microsoft this week began a massive push for its Windows Phone 7 series that promises to do everything Apple does—only with more functionality (running simultaneous apps, full manipulation of Office docs, etc). Of course, Microsoft always talks a big game. It’s unclear whether it can overcome those stability problems that have always plagued mobile versions of Windows—especially as consumers pile on apps and multitasking. But none of that really matters. This is an arms race that will intensify in 2010. That means lower prices on devices and data plans. This “chicken in every pot” reality means that mobile media content’s reach will start to trickle down this year. The mobile video revolution is starting to get pretty darned affordable.
And finally, there’s the big media content wildcard: Apple’s iPad launch by this summer. No one expects the iPad to immediately catch fire like the iPhone. But Apple and many analysts expect at least a couple million of them to fly off of store shelves this year. Those 2 million people will be taking them to coffee shops and showing them off at business functions. The first iPad version uses WiFi. The second will carry 3G capability. And yes, an LTE version is likely by early next year if not sooner. The iPad and its “cool factor” could be a major part of selling TV Everywhere to the masses. It takes mobile video viewing beyond the small screen of a mobile device. Yes, laptops can do the same thing, but they’re just not as cool. Apple is trying to create a new category that will excite consumers about the possibilities of media content portability. It’s a feel thing. It may seem like a meaningless distinction. But it’s not. Just ask iPhone users.
This is the year, folks. Media content wants to roam. All of it. And everywhere. Are you ready for the 2010s? They’re going to turn your world upside down.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX).