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Mobile TV and the elusive fourth screen

Two mantras that I have heard repeated at telecom industry trade shows are that consumers wonít pay for the same content on more than one screen and a device that does only one function is rarely as valuable as a multi-purpose device. Thatís why I was surprised to hear FLO TVís announcement of a dedicated consumer device for its multicast television service. Is this wishful thinking, or could mobile TV be the service that bucks both trends?

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My first inkling leans toward the wishful thinking camp. Fourth-screen devices, while a promising market, are also a challenged one. Take the Verizon Wireless Hub, for example. VZW announced it was stopping all sales and production of its much-hyped in-home multimedia and voice-over-IP device, launched earlier this year. Most were quick to point to the price ó $200 for the phone and $35 per month for service ó as a reason for its downfall.

The FLO TV Personal Television device falls into the same category of a sleek gadget with a high price tag. It retails for $249.99 and comes with a subscription service for $8.99 per month. Thatís significant for a device that solely plays live and time-shifted TV, similar to what consumers can view online or in the living room.

The FLO TV device will likely appeal to some high-end device lovers or families trying to placate small children on the go, and that could be enough for Qualcomm subsidiary FLO TV. The device is only one facet of FLO TVís overall strategy, which also includes partnerships with AT&T and Verizon, a direct-to-consumer service and a partnership with Autovox for in-car entertainment systems ó a promising market for fourth-screen devices that combine GPS and mobile TV.

Like FLO TV, fourth-screen devices are only one facet of carrierís plans, but they are counting on making a business from them. Both AT&T and Sprint reiterated that at this weekís CTIA IT & Entertainment show in San Diego. AT&T announced it was powering a GSM version of the Kindle, Amazonís ebook reader ó a good example of a successful single-purpose device. Sprint also created a new Emerging Solutions Group this week to focus on business and consumer mobile computing and embedded consumer electronics.

Industry observers have high hopes for both mobile TV and fourth-screen devices. Infonetics expects 397 million mobile videophones to sell worldwide in 2013, creating a market worth tens of billions of dollars. A recent ABI Research study found that connected home devices, including digital photos, media phones and Internet appliances, will generate market value of about $5 billion by 2014. The firm does, however, expect media phones that combine multiple features, including video playback, to be the best seller, totaling 30 million in 2014.

The market for fourth screens, especially those with some form of mobile TV or video experience, is definitely an interesting one, but there are still challenges to overcome. Finding the right balance of features and business model will be key to its success. I think my two trade show adages ó the more functionality the better and no dough for nothing new ó should continue to at least influence dedicated devices in the future.

E-mail me at sarah.reedy@penton.com.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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