We were in Silicon Valley last month and had the opportunity to visit several companies. Two of these--MobiTV and Orb Networks--specialize in mobile TV services. We saw demos of both services and are looking forward to playing with them later this year when we get new mobile phones.
As we went to set up the meetings with MobiTV and Orb, we found both headquartered in the same building in Emeryville, directly across the bay from downtown San Francisco. Emeryville must be the world center of mobile video!
We have been following Orb Networks for some time, and first wrote about them in CES 2005--The Next Big Thing: Video-on-the-Go (BBHR 1/24/2005).
Orb is directed to people who use their PCs to store their music, photos and videos; the PC may also have live video from an attached tuner card, perhaps (but not necessarily) using Windows XP Media Center Edition. Orb's software and service enables the user to listen to their music and view their photos and video anywhere in the world--from any suitably-equipped "web-connected mobile device" including PDAs, portable PCs and mobile phones.
We met with Hervé Utheza, who recently joined Orb as Vice President and Executive Producer, TV Properties. Hervé started by describing how Orb is different from other "place-shifting" systems. While some other systems (such as Sling Media's Slingbox) require the user to purchase a special piece of hardware, Orb is software that users download and run on their broadband-connected PCs. Orb's software catalogs all of the user's media content and provides a guide to the live video services. When a user connects through the Internet from a remote location, the Orb software transcodes the PC's media content into the most appropriate format. They refer to what the user does as "my casting" -- bringing your content to you, wherever you are.
The advantage of the Ajax approach over more traditional web interfaces is that it fully exploits the processing power of the user device. By placing much of the processing within the browser rather than the web server, user applications can respond quickly and intuitively to user requests. Google Maps is a good example of an Ajax application.
We talked briefly about content protection. Orb's approach is to validate the DRM of the media that’s being streamed on the PC at home to make sure the user has the right to view (or listen to) the stream. Orb is a member of both the Digital Media Association (DiMA) and the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA).
Mobile video is an important part of Orb. From a remote device, a user can access any of the video content available on the home PC. This can include user-created video; streaming video from the Internet such as YouTube; and live video from broadcast, cable or satellite. The Orb software on the user's PC transmits the video content from the PC to the mobile device in a format and at a speed appropriate to the attributes of the remote device and the quality of the connection between the PC and remote device. When Orb 2.0 is released, the new Ajax approach will be used on remote PCs; less-capable mobile devices will continue to use a simpler interface more suitable to the small screen size and lower bit rate.
Orb users can share content with others. As a demonstration, Hervé used his mobile phone to send us an email message sharing some of the photos on his PC. When we got home, we received his email, visited the Orb website, established an account, and viewed Hervé's photos.
Orb is now free. Originally introduced as a pay service, Orb switched to a free model for both software download and service more than a year ago. Instead of charging the consumer, Orb says it now makes money by licensing its software and service to equipment vendors and service providers. As examples, Hauppauge Computer Works packages Orb with its tuner cards; AMD uses Orb to power its AMD LIVE! On Demand service; and EMBARQ (formerly Sprint Local) uses Orb as the basis for its Personal Media Link service.
Orb's architecture seems very clever. By fully exploiting the horsepower of the user's PC and mobile devices, Orb's web servers are lightly loaded, so Orb should have relatively low operating costs compared with more server-intensive service models.
The new Orb interface looks very nice. We're looking forward to using it once Orb 2.0 is released, probably within a few months.
In Emeryville, we met with Benjamin Feinman, MobiTV's Director, Product Management. MobiTV is directed to people who want to watch live TV and listen to music on their mobile phones--Ben described it as "a phenomenal media experience wherever you are." In the United States, MobiTV currently includes about 25 channels of mobile video and 50 channels of music; the video channels include commercial channels such as MSNBC, ABC News Now, and Fox Sports, plus other channels created specifically by MobiTV. MobiTV has different channel lineups for other countries such as Mexico, Canada and the UK.
The MobiTV service runs on a variety of video-capable mobile phones, including Palm and Windows Mobile smart phones. The service runs at the highest frame rate with phones equipped for 3G services, and at lower frame rates on older phones. There's also a version for lap-top PCs used at AT&T hot spots.
MobiTV's service is available both from wireless carriers and directly from MobiTV. In the US, Cingular and Sprint offer versions of the MobiTV service under their own brand names. There are many different pricing plans, depending on the selected channel lineup and the service provider. Carriers bundle selected video channels with their data services; for example, the entry-level Sprint Power Vision Access Pack includes two channels--ABC News Now and a preview channel--of Sprint TV (which is powered by MobiTV).
Ben described MobiTV as "snack TV" -- TV watched in short bursts of available time and very different from traditional TV targeted to the "couch potato".
Ben said MobiTV has "a world-class service and applications platform". Because devices vary in their capabilities and there is a wide range of data rates, the MobiTV service varies the bandwidth and the bit rate dynamically. Right now the fastest services operate at 300 kbps; Ben expects "a half meg and beyond in the future".
As we left our meeting with Ben, we noticed the glass window of the Network Operations Center control room in the lobby. As we looked through the window, we could see racks of flat-panel displays showing the on-air channels and the network configuration. It looked like what we would expect at a world-class operation.
Two Approaches to Mobile Media
MobiTV and Orb Networks represent two very different approaches to mobile video. They are not the only ones in this exciting market -- other companies are following approaches similar to theirs.
MobiTV's service lets subscribers receive specially-formatted video channels on their mobile phones or laptop PCs. MobiTV aggregates commercial video services and produces some of its own, formats the video specifically for small screens and fairly low bit rates, then streams the video from its servers to the mobile device. It charges subscribers a monthly fee for the services, and wholesales its channel lineups and delivery platform to service providers which sell them at retail to their own customers. (smarTVideo is another aggregator with a similar approach.)
By contrast, Orb does not have a channel lineup. It reformats the video content and other media that users have already stored on their home PCs for use on their remote devices. Orb's users have already paid for the video services and broadband connections at home, and the data services on their mobile devices; Orb does not charge an additional fee for them to use these services from remote locations. (Sling Media has a similar approach, but requires the user to purchase a piece of equipment.)
While we enjoyed the demonstrations of Orb and MobiTV, both seem like the kinds of services you can only understand by using them on a regular basis. Over the next few months we plan to get new video-capable cell phones, and will start using both services.