For almost five years, Brian Levin has been waiting for television to hit the small screen.

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For almost five years, Brian Levin has been waiting for television to hit the small screen.


When he founded Seattle-based Mobliss in 2000, the concept didn’t seem too far off. He thought people would use cellphones to watch short clips of sports, election results, weather forecasts or breaking news.

But his entrepreneur drive perfectly coincided with the technology downturn. Instead of launching mobile TV, he spent the next few years nursing $2 million in venture capital and developing other products, namely “WildWest Blackjack,” a wireless game, and the text-message voting system used by Fox TV’s “American Idol.”


Now, Levin thinks the mobile-phone market is ready for TV content and, after selling Mobliss to Tokyo-based Index, the company has the financial backing to go after it.

Last month, Mobliss launched a soon-to-be-available mobile channel called Thumbdance at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Thumbdance makes Mobliss just one of many companies trying to raise the curtain on mobile TV in 2005, and it seems the timing couldn’t be better.


Cellphone carriers are installing high-speed networks that enable broadcast-quality television. Content providers are making the entertainment available and handsets are becoming advanced enough to view TV at high speeds.

Perhaps most of all, wireless carriers are counting on it. As competition has forced down the price of voice calls, carriers are looking to advanced services to generate new revenues.




Channels of mobile TV


There are a handful of options today for consumers to get TV on mobile phones.


Sprint PCS: Offers service in Seattle on its digital network for $15 to $25 a month.

Cingular Wireless: Offers MobiTV in Seattle on its EDGE network for $9.99 a month. (Because TV uses data, not voice minutes, an unlimited data services subscription is also recommended.)


Verizon Wireless: Offering its V CAST service in areas where it has high-speed 3G networks. It has not yet announced plans for when a network upgrade comes to Seattle.

“Carriers will reward companies that do figure out how to use [new high-speed networks]; someone is going to do it. Might as well be us,” Levin said.

4 hours a days

Mobile TV, which generally costs $10 to $30 a month (more for premium channels), is heading into a market where the average American already watches four hours of TV a day. What’s another three minutes at the bus stop, or five minutes at the dentist?

Sprint PCS launched its version in March 2003, making it one of the first carriers in the U.S. to do so. The timing coincided with the beginning of the Iraq war.


“We’d done a great job with text, so we thought it was right to move to the next level to cover a story like that with more than text and pictures,” said Dale Knoop, Sprint’s director for Sprint PCS Vision Multimedia Services in Overland Park, Kan.

Most of the 284,000 subscribers viewing TV on mobile phones at the end of 2004 were Sprint customers, according to the Yankee Group. With Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless announcing services in the past couple of months, the numbers are expected to reach 1.3 million by year’s end and 4.5 million by 2006.





Mobliss


Headquarters: Seattle



What it does: Helps wireless carriers and content providers create and deliver text messaging and mobile music.



Management: Brian Levin is co-founder and chief executive


Employees: 80 mostly in Seattle; 40 job openings

History: In 2004, Mobliss was acquired by Index, a Tokyo-based mobile-content and information provider.

Customers: Coca-Cola, USA Networks, Fox Broadcasting

and FremantleMedia in conjunction with “American Idol.”


Wireless partners: Includes Alltel, AT&T Wireless, Bell Mobility, Boost Mobile, Cingular Wireless, Nextel Communications, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Virgin Mobile and Western Wireless.

Mobile games published:


“Family Feud,” “The Price Is Right,” “Cliffhangers” and “WildWest Blackjack”


Like a Web browser

Although Mobile TV works differently depending on the operator, it’s much like a Web browser. From a starting page, a user can choose from a number of channels and then pick a station for either live TV or short video clips.


On MobiTV, a platform developed by Berkeley, Calif.-based Idetic, the choices include MSNBC, CNBC, ABC News, FOX Sports, The Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel. MobiTV is available on both Sprint PCS and Cingular.

The quality of the video depends on a number of factors, including which phone and network are being used. It can range from a robotic PowerPoint-like slide show to a more fluid broadcast quality.


Seattle-based RealNetworks also is competing in this arena, providing the media platforms for mobile phones. It partners with more than 40 carriers worldwide, including Sprint PCS and AT&T Wireless, now Cingular, in the U.S.

RealNetworks recently announced it expanded its relationship with Nokia, so that its media player could be installed on all of its handsets, rather than the 20 it was originally limited to.


“We think — and I always thought — that video and audio will be right up there alongside mobile games, ringtones and other applications operators are making a lot of money on today,” said Lee Joseph, general manager for RealNetworks’ Mobile International.

Microsoft, too, is making a dent by partnering with Verizon Wireless to put out its V CAST service, launched earlier this month. To do so, Microsoft partnered with Seattle-based ThePlatform to offer the service.


V CAST provides a variety of content, including clips from “The Daily Show with John Stewart” and Sesame Street’s greatest hits. V CAST is launching on Verizon Wireless’ new 3G network rolling out around the country. Plans for a 3G network in Seattle have not been announced.

Last week, Redmond-based Action Engine also entered the market, announcing that it was adding TV to a platform that already offers Internet content from Amazon.com, eBay and Fox Sports.


To do so, Action Engine is using Microsoft Windows Media and Windows Server technologies and partnering with Norcross, Ga.-based SmartVideo Technologies, which provides the content. The service has yet to launch with any carriers.


$200 phones?

Despite the advances, mobile TV is still in its infancy and faces a lot of issues that need sorting out. The cost of adopting the service, for instance, will mean a new phone for most users that can cost as much as $200. The monthly service can cost $10 a month or more on top of a data plan. And a huge surge in popularity could cause network-capacity issues for the carriers.

The market may not be as big as many think, said Neil Sharma, senior business-development manager with the Windows Media Division at Microsoft, but it could follow the path of camera phones. “You take a picture and put it in your pocket. People are familiar with that,” he said. “The next level is a moving image. It’s not a far stretch.”







ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES


The Mobliss Thumbdance mobile video channel is displayed on a cellphone.


Linda Barrabee, a Yankee Group analyst, said she thinks the first to adopt the service will be young professionals seeking connectivity throughout the day.

Cingular said it expected people in their late 20s and early 30s who don’t have time for TV to be most interested.


“We do expect to see significant adoption over time. Will it be big business in 2005? That still remains to be seen,” said Jim Ryan, Cingular’s vice president of consumer data services in Atlanta.


Jib Jab on the go

Levin expects much of the same for the Thumbdance channel. Although Mobliss is still adding content to the channel before it launches on any network, Levin said the company is making progress. So far, Thumbdance has obtained rights to various video clips, including those by Jib Jab, which created political cartoon animations popular during the 2004 national election.

Levin is so confident that he’s putting more than half of the 80-person company’s research and development funds and nearly a third of the company’s overall business efforts towards mobile TV.


He will be the first to admit to the size of the bet Mobliss and everyone else is making: All this is going toward “a revenue stream that hasn’t even started yet.”

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com