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Does Size Matter?

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Ashley Highfield | 13:56 UK time, Monday, 7 April 2008

mobile_content175.jpgThe launch of BBC iPlayer onto the iPhone, and the relaunch of our mobile services more generally, raises some critical questions that remain unanswered, such as:

"do people want to consume a lot of information on a 3"x2" screen?".

If TV is to become mobile, or people are to stop buying the morning newspaper (or paperbacks) to read on the train and use the wireless internet instead, then must we believe that the next generation of mobile phones/MP3 players will become a usable device for consuming half an hour plus of media? The jury is out on this one.

It may be an issue less of technology and more of biology: is the screen of an easily pocketable device too small to comfortably stare at for an hour-long commute? The larger-screened laptop, with its high cost, low battery life, steal/breakability, and screen glare is probably not the mass market solution either. Is there a market for a large screen, cheap, reliable, non-eye-straining device?

Elonex thinks so, and is the latest manufacturer to enter the market with their £99 wifi-connected laptop. (Their secret to low-price success? They're betting on open source software: the machine runs Linux). Amazon also thinks there is a market between iTouch and a full-blown laptop, with the book-reader Kindle apparently being the first step towards a more functionally rich (e.g. open internet access) device. And Sony too is soon to be relaunching its eBook (early incarnations of e-books have signally failed to inspire the blogosphere, for example this from Cory Doctorow).

Making the right call here, and correctly forecasting demand for mobile-IP rich media, may well be the difference between success and failure for UK media companies, especially the print industry. (And just to illustrate how complex this market is, in Japan, downloads of books to standard mobile screens has actually been quite a success, as has TV to mobile in Korea.)

Recently, Guardian MD Tim Brooks kindly came along to BBC Future Media & Technology (FM&T) Towers over here to talk to our senior management group about the challenges we all face in the media industry. He stated that as long as we stuck to our guns - providing original, distinctive, quality (and in our case impartial) news, education and entertainment - we would survive the audience shifts away from newspapers and TV to the internet.

Newspaper circulation has been falling for years (and with it, advertising revenues), but the decline appears to be levelling out. Clearly, the advantages of the print newspaper when on the move, (whether in the house or on the train) are key. The advantages of the newspaper over trying to obtain the same information over your Nokia N95 are obvious. Could the Elonex/Open-Kindle change this?

We have seen the false dawn of mass media consumption on mobile devices a number of times. Last year, I made a speech where I forsaw that all the factors that would enable mobile to start being a viable data provider were starting to come into alignment. More recently, our News FM&T head Nic Newman has echoed these sentiments.

Vodaphone CEO Arun Sarin declared recently: "If we have to look at the whole chain of things that have to be right before mobile internet takes off, I feel we are there".

And Vodafone should know what it's talking about, sitting on £2bn of annual data revenues. Yet this growth is not for the most part coming from mobile phones. Data is still a tiny part of the volume going over the mobile phones, if you exclude SMS. What's driving mobile data is laptop computers with high-speed data cards (HSPA) being used predominantly for work emails. 3UK data "dongles" for laptops have been flying off the shelves faster than iPhones.

But if the tide is starting to turn to mobile-IP, what devices will win? Mobile phone, e-readers, £100 Linux laptops, or full blown notebooks?

For the BBC, already the number one provider of content to mobile devices in the UK, what is our role in helping to drive the market for those devices that are open, inexpensive, and can help provide a quality experience and start a new relationship with audiences who may not consume that much of our output through traditional means?

As the founders of the BBC Micro gathered two weeks ago to mark the immensely positive impact this machine had on kickstarting the home computer revolution 26 years ago, I wonder whether there is a similar role we could play now?

Ashley Highfield is Director, BBC Future Media & Technology.


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