The World Cup is a done deal, and went exactly the way I predicted (except that Italy won). Perhaps somewhat more predictable has been the hype surrounding mobile TV's role in this year's World Cup event.
Even before the opening match, analyst firms such as Informa Telecoms & Media were predicting that mobile TV would "boom" this year thanks to interest driven by trials not only in host country Germany, where T-Mobile was offering service, but in various European and Asian markets where 3G or - in the case of Korea and Japan - mobile TV already exists commercially.
However, even more predictable than the hype has been the failure of reality to keep up.
To be fair, I've considered the World Cup to be a potential key driver of mobile TV ever since I watched the 2002 semi-finals on a Casio JY-90 analog TV set whilst untethered in Hong Kong. And there's little doubt that interest in mobile TV has soared in markets like Germany, the UK, Korea and Australia, among others, thanks to various operators promoting World Cup-related mobile TV packages. South Korea's three T-DMB operators reported a 50% increase in handset sales last month, which they attribute to World Cup fever. In Australia, Hutchison 3 reports that customers connected to mobile highlights or full-match broadcasts about 300,000 times in the first two weeks of the World Cup (before Australia was eliminated).
The problem is that the actual user experience, by and large, has been mixed. Google "mobile TV world cup", and you'll find a number of reports from journos and bloggers on their experience with mobile TV. Some, like John Blau of IDG News Service, were "unexpectedly impressed" with mobile TV's quality. Others, like one journalist for eetasia.com, reporting from Berlin during the Brazil-Croatia match, reported jerky pictures, dropped frames and frozen images.
Granted, problems and glitches were inevitable. We are, after all, talking about an immature, non-standardized technology thrust out of controlled booth demos and into the middle of one of the biggest sporting events in the world. On the other hand, the question is how hard mobile operators will have to work to convince disgruntled trial users to come back when the service is more mature.
One thing they'll have to work on is just what mobile TV is. Judging by some World Cup mobile TV packages, the "mobile TV" bit was actually just streamed or downloadable video clips and match highlights - in other words, stuff you can already get on existing 3G networks. There may be a market for such content, but it's not the same as watching broadcast TV on a phone, which is what proper mobile TV technologies like DMB and DVB-H are all about. Consumers are already going to have to wade through a bunch of incompatible standards to get "mobile TV" - giving them video downloads and calling it "mobile TV" can only add to the confusion.
Still, the toughest challenge to implementing mobile TV - apart from spectrum acquisition - was always going to be content and marketing, not the technology. The technology will sort itself out over time, although current experience indicates that the question of battery life will plague mobile TV at least until the next World Cup in 2010. The harder questions lie in acquiring content that users and advertisers will pay for, and delivering it in an acceptable format - live broadcast feeds, repurposed, reformatted "snacking" content on demand, or a hybrid of the two‾
We may have an idea of the answer in a few months after operators analyze (and hopefully release) the results of their trials in greater detail. For now, though, the World Cup trials have shown that demand for some kind of mobile TV is there. Here's hoping operators and vendors can deliver before that demand evaporates.