Mobile video has a very high cool quotient, but does it serve any useful business purpose? Or could it? Canada’s carriers don’t have many unique products – some don’t even appear to have a strategy – and the business market seems to be waiting on consumers to find the value. Sure, you can stream ESPN highlights and the latest cute-cat YouTube videos to your iPhone, and the video quality is – amazing. (‘Amazing’ as in, it’s a wonder this device and network can do video at all.) And yes, you can connect your dongle-equipped laptop to the Internet over a 3G (HSPA or EVDO) network and use any video service you would at home or office, albeit with uneven results. But even those most likely to be bullish about mobile video admit business applications that exploit these capabilities are not exactly taking the market by storm. Telus Corp, for example, doesn’t have any application provider partners offering video-based solutions for business. And, when contacted by Telemanagement, Rogers Communications couldn’t provide a spokesperson to comment on its strategy – suggesting that it doesn’t yet have a clear story to tell. Zeus Kerravala, a senior vice president at Yankee Group and lead in the firm’s Mobilizing and Capitalizing on the Anywhere Network research group, puts a positive spin on business video in other contexts, but can’t get excited about mobile video. “There’s not really a ton of interest,” Kerravala says. “And the quality tends to be mediocre.” Mobile video may look like a solution in search of a problem – and not even a particularly good one, some would argue. But don’t write if off entirely. For at least some companies, it could have its uses, even in the short term. We found developers offering viable mobile solutions with compelling business cases. Canadian firm Chalk Media Corp, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Research in Motion (RIM), has a suite of products that allow companies to push video content – new product demonstrations, CEO messages, etc. – to mobile workers. AirVisual, an American company, offers technology for streaming video on demand from remote sources to a handheld (or laptop) over the wireless network. Even skeptics admit there are at least hypothetical application niches where mobile video could be invaluable. But there are still problems, both with the technology and market readiness. Eric Fergin, Telus’ director of planning and development, thinks it’s telling that his company has no partners with video-based business applications, but also slightly puzzling. “A couple of years ago, I thought that by now, demand would have been there,” he says. “Certainly the speeds are there. But what we haven’t seen is mobile video emerge as an unfulfilled demand in business.” Some would dispute Fergin’s assertion that network technology is no longer a hold-back. Kerravala blames “the vagaries of the wireless network” for pixilation and jerkiness common in mobile streaming video. “I don’t think we’re that far away,” he says. “But there’s not quite enough bandwidth yet.” He also blames the lack of processing power in handhelds for the poor quality video, and the smallness of their screens for a generally unsatisfactory user experience. Exacerbating the problem is that many cellular operators are over-promising on mobile video quality. “A lot of commercials from carriers are showing TV-quality video , and that’s just not true,” says AirVisual founder and CEO Tom Hansen. As a result, managing customer expectations is a constant problem for those evangelizing mobile video applications, Hansen says. The lack of processing power in handhelds will almost certainly solve itself in the fullness of time, Kerravala believes. It always does. New mobile form factors may emerge, but the small screen problem will likely remain. He notes, however, that creative film makers shooting videos for handheld film festivals have developed techniques to mitigate the problem – using lots of close-ups, few long shots and no panoramic shots. Makers of business videos and designers of mobile video systems can and should learn the same tricks, he says. 4G will eventually help solve bandwidth problems, increasing both raw speed and user capacity – though for how long it will solve those problems remains to be seen. As Kerravala points out, “Whatever bandwidth we have, we tend to use it up.” Fergin agrees about the impact of 4G, which he claims his company will begin deploying in 2012. “It’ll certainly have a little bit of impact ,” he says. “But I don’t think it will be a tipping point.” In the meantime, the dearth of video-based business applications indicates that demand lags technical capability, Fergin says. Recently, his company had open discussions with Vayyoo Inc about its vPost application for capturing a combination of video, audio, GPS location and text and sending it as a package over the network. And as we’ve seen, there are other application providers out there. Fergin believes two things are missing in the mobile video space right now: widespread consumer adoption and strong business cases. Both may come, and sooner than some observers believe. “Business needs tend to follow the consumer space,” he says. “If there is adoption of mobile video in the consumer space, it will follow in the business market. Once is in common use among consumers, some of them will inevitably say, ‘Why don’t I do this in my business?’ We’re not yet at that level with mobile video.” SMS is an obvious analogy, he adds. It first came into widespread use among young consumers. Now businesses are starting to exploit it. Consumers are starting to embrace mobile video. In a recent report from SNL Kagan, the research firm predicted revenue from mobile video services would jump 17% this year over last. And Nielsen, the consumer survey company, says the number of people who watched mobile video in the fourth quarter of 2008 was up 9% over third quarter, to about 11 million. Building compelling business cases for mobile video may be a tougher nut to crack. Forget about mobile video conferencing for starters, at least on handhelds. It’s an application some vendors have touted. Cisco Systems, for example, recently introduced Mobile WebEx with video capabilities. Participants could theoretically join a web-based video conference even from the backseat of a cab. There are problems with this idea, though. Even in the office environment where video conferencing is the killer app for business video, return on investment (ROI) is “hard to prove,” Kerravala says. And it will be harder to prove in the mobile environment. Besides, the user experience isn’t nearly good enough to encourage mass adoption. “You still can’t replicate the feeling of ‘being there’ in the mobile space,” Kerravala says. This is a considerable understatement. Even Fergin concedes that the quality of video, especially on a handheld, isn’t good enough to permit viewers to easily read body language – the main rationale for video in conferencing in the first place. And participants with handhelds will have to hold the device awkwardly at arm’s length. Video conferencing might be viable with a dongle-equipped laptop connecting over a 3G network. OoVoo LLC, a low-cost, over-the-net video conferencing service, recently demonstrated this to us. While video over a Verizon 3G network wasn’t as good as over a wireline connection, it was good enough to convey additional information not available in a voice-only call. Fergin sees two types of video applications that might actually find a niche market, both of them extensions or adaptations of capabilities already being used by consumers. One he refers to as see-what-I-see. Consumers can and do shoot videos on their phones at parties and night clubs and e-mail or multimedia message them to absent friends to show what a great time they’re having. The same capability would be useful for field technicians confronted with a problem they can’t solve on their own, Fergin suggests. They could capture video demonstrating the problem and send it to a remote company expert. Trouble is, the business case is only really compelling for workers inspecting high-value assets. “Someone looking at the undercarriage of a train car, for example,” Fergin says. “If you don’t keep that train running, you’re losing money.” And even then, a video capability is not something these workers would need every day. AirVisual has a slightly different take on this – more see-what-it-sees-in-real-time. The company can stream video on demand over the cellular network from unattended video sources. Fergin cautions that this type of surveillance application is only viable if you can remotely trigger the source – a camera or digital video recorder – to start streaming. This could be done with a cellular phone call or some kind of proximity or motion sensor in the field. The alternative, constantly streaming video from the source, would be too expensive for the customer and use too much network bandwidth, Fergin points out. The other viable application he sees, a “logical extension” of mobile YouTube, is streaming corporate video for training and other purposes. Although it doesn’t use streaming video, this is where Chalk Media plays – and has found modest early success. A mobile video ecosystem in support of business applications is slowly emerging. Chalk Media and AirVisual are among the pioneers. Amigot Corp, a European firm that recently opened offices in New York, designs and creates “customized, exclusive video applications, players and platforms.” NMS Communications, which just introduced a new mobile video gateway product, believes mobile video could transform the way contact centres work by allowing them to get consumers to send see-what-I-see videos showing malfunctioning equipment. This really only means that innovative minds are applying themselves to the notion of using mobile video for business, though, not that the problems – under-powered handhelds, too-small screens, congested 3G networks, hard-to-prove ROI cases, etc. – will be solved willy-nilly. That being said, Chalk Media and AirVisual have both found enterprise customers that buy into the benefits of mobile video. Maybe your company or department is another. AirVisual has it covered... AirVisual founder and CEO, Tom Hansen, started with a simple idea inspired by the events of 9/11. Wouldn’t it be useful to access video from surveillance cameras, from anywhere? Hansen spent “millions” developing a platform for streaming video over a cellular network from virtually any source, optimizing the stream for the network and receiving device used. AirVisual has been marketing the technology since 2005, mainly targeting airports, seaports, K-12 education and first responders. A cop in Chicago, for example, can stream surveillance camera video to a handheld or laptop to assess what’s happening at a site that placed a 911 call. It helps police determine whether, how quickly and with what level of preparedness to respond. If the decision is that no response is needed – and many times it is – that can result in direct savings, Hansen points out. Enterprises are using the technology in some intriguing ways too. A chain retailer, for example, set up a system for automatically unlocking doors when an employee arrives in the morning to open a store. The company didn’t want to give keys out to employees who might not stay in its employ for long. The worker calls his supervisor on a cell phone when he arrives at the store. The AirVisual system streams surveillance camera video over the cellular network so the supervisor can see that it really is the employee. Then the system allows the supervisor to remotely unlock the door. AirVisual systems are not terribly expensive. Average deployment: about $50,000. In the early days, when streaming video over 2G and 2.5G networks, video quality was poor and sales, partly as a result, were difficult. Now, Hansen says, sales cycles have shortened considerably and large enterprises are starting to show strong interest. ...and Chalk Media pushes Chalk Media, which was acquired by Research in Motion earlier this year, started marketing its Mobile Chalkboard product in 2007. It allows companies to automatically push media content, including video, over the cellular network to mobile workers. Chalk calls it pushcasting. It takes five to ten minutes to pushcast a ten-minute video, says marketing manager Brooke Van Hatten. With streaming video, network speed and traffic conditions impact video quality. Not with pushcasting. The video uploads to the device in the background, then client software announces that new content is available. Companies can set up the system to monitor when users review content and even add tests and questionnaires to ensure they do. Van Hatten says the company has 15 to 20 paying customers today – including AT&T and Johnson & Johnson – and 20 or 30 pilots at various stages. Customers pay $2,500 per user, plus about $5 per user per month to use the software. Chalk is mainly pushing the solution to big enterprises for training mobile sales people. The business case is built in part on a 2004 survey by Ipsos Reid (commissioned by RIM). It found that using a BlackBerry allowed workers to recover 60 minutes of down time per day on average. “If even ten minutes of that time is now going to training, there’s a huge positive ROI,” Van Hatten says. She says the product makes mobile employees more productive, helps get new products to market faster and improves alignment of sales effort with corporate strategies.