Mobile TV logoThe Mobile TV TechZone was a part of CES this year. Its name sounds a lot more important than it looked, occupying a small island of modest booths near the back of the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. I went there to chuckle at the exhibitors’ plans, but I came away with a deeper respect for mobile TV, even if that’s not saying much.

Let’s start by cataloging the organizations involved in promoting mobile TV:

  • Dyle. That’s the trademark of Mobile Content Venture, which is pushing a subset of channels with “no subscription fee through the end of 2013.”
  • The Open Mobile Video Coalition. That’s “an alliance of broadcasters dedicated to accelerating the development and rollout of mobile television”. The National Association of Broadcasters recently assumed control over the OMVC.
  • The Mobile500 Alliance. That’s a group of TV station owners, “all with the common goal of bringing broadcast television to consumers on their mobile devices.”

I didn’t get too close to the Dyle booth. The folks there were busy demonstrating their latest iPad dongle to some other attendees. It looked like the same old Dyle stuff, and frankly, I don’t care for Dyle. I’m a big fan of the implicit contract between over-the-air broadcasters and their viewers. We own the airwaves, but we allow the OTA broadcasters to use them to entertain and inform us. Subscriptions shouldn’t be part of that relationship.

On the other side of the island was the Mobile500 Alliance, and there I got into a long conversation with John Lawson. At the time, I figured that he was just another suit working the booth, but after our talk, when he gave me his card, I saw that he’s the executive director. Maybe that’s why he was so persuasive.

Lawson agreed with me on a lot of things. He thought that broadcasters didn’t do enough to promote their exisiting digital subchannels. He recognized that in most of the circumstances that mobile TV is available, regular digital TV is also available. And he agreed with the free model for broadcast TV, mostly.

The Mobile500 Alliance system will require a one-time user registration for the tuner to work. Lawson said that will be used for accurate audience measurement, and possibly to choose the best advertisement from a small set of ads pushed to the mobile device. He also allowed that some channels could be subscription-based, but only if they were “premium, cable TV channels,” and that the majority of mobile channels would stay free.

I’m a little uncomfortable with having a lot of the airwaves used for something I’d have to pay to watch, and I don’t like the fact that mobile broadcasting takes away bandwidth that could otherwise be used for regular digital subchannels, but Lawson thought that mobile TV and subchannels could exist together in each market.

“I believe that mobile can save broadcast TV,” Lawson told me. Now there’s a goal we can both agree on. I’m not 100 percent behind the Mobile500 Alliance, but now at least I have a bit of cautious optimism about its work. We’ll see.

Update, sort of: Hiawatha Bray of the Boston Globe experimented a bit with some mobile TV devices from CES. He had four channels available in Boston versus one here in Denver, but I don’t think he thought it was worth it. YouTube-quality video, loss of signal in tunnels, and some occasional above-ground signal dropouts were among his findings. My optimism is getting more cautious all the time. Here, go watch Bray’s video report.

CES 2013 exhibit hallFirst, let me apologize to anyone who tried to visit here in the past week only to be turned away, often by a 500 database error. According to my web host, FTABlog suddenly began devouring huge chunks of memory for no good reason, and its server had nothing to do with that. After wrestling with the problem for a few days, I moved the blog to a new host, and this time the transition seems to have been successful. Who says I never learn my lesson?

Now I’ve got a lot of CES reporting to catch up on. The first, most interesting bit is that I was proved right; the onsite staff of CNet reportedly voted Dish Network’s Hopper with Sling receiver as 2013 CES Best of Show. Unfortunately for Dish, CBS owns CNet, and CBS (among others) is suing Dish because of the Hopper’s advertising-skipping function. So CBS got wind of the award and squashed it, directing CNet to pick somebody else.

The Verge has a superb story on the whole affair, and it gets bonus points from me for dragging in Alki David, our friend from Quite a while ago, fresh from getting smacked by CBS (among others) after his first attempts to stream over-the-air programming, David sued CBS for allowing CNet to report extensively on piracy, including how-to pieces, and for the related site, which supposedly hosted circumvention software. In that lawsuit, CBS lawyers argued that CNet was independent of CBS’s control. The Verge writes, “Holding CBS responsible forCNET, CBS’ lawyers argued, ‘would create grave uncertainties for writers and publishers — including search engines, web encyclopedias, blogs and most technology journalists — that seek to communicate truthful information about emerging technologies including P2P file-sharing services.'”

I don’t know whether David can use this to show that CBS isn’t quite so hands-off when it comes to CNet, and I think it’s a darned shame that Dish was denied another CES Best of Show (it won in 2009 for the ViP 922 receiver). But I think the Hopper has a chance of beating the courts and becoming a real game-changer. As a Dish shareholder, I sure hope so.

During Dish Network’s press conference at the International CES Monday, I saw a more likely future for TV on the go than the one promoted by Dyle and the Open Mobile Video Coalition. Those are the groups that think viewers will want to watch live TV when they are moving but not driving, not in an airplane, and not in a subway. As I’ve written before, that type of mobile video is a weak solution for a limited audience. On the other hand, Dish showed its answer for everybody on the go.

As part of its new Hopper with Sling receiver technology, Dish announced Hopper Transfers, a system where the receiver prepares and copies a DVR recording to a viewer’s iPad. Then that viewer can watch the show anywhere using that iPad, even on an airplane or in a subway.

Dish already provides TV Anywhere, so viewers with Sling-enabled receivers can watch live programming from smartphones and tablets through the internet, but there are some places the internet won’t reach. The answer there isn’t live TV in a few settings, it’s viewer-selected TV that’s available anywhere he has his iPad.

Todd Spangler wrote more about the press conference in his article at Multichannel News, so you should go read that for the most information about what happened. About the only thing he didn’t mention was that Dish said it will offer an over-the-air dongle for its Hopper with Sling receiver. Sorry I don’t have a picture of that dongle, but it looked like a USB stick, pretty close to the one I’m using to pick up a couple dozen OTA channels on my laptop here in Vegas. (2nd Update: The Dish booth confirmed the dongle is this one, released in late 2012.) My ViP 922 receiver back home uses an optional, modular piece that slides all the way in to a panel in the back of the unit. I wonder why Dish couldn’t make room for an internal OTA antenna in the receiver it hopes to use to differentiate its service from cable and DirecTV, and to keep viewers from cutting the cord. Even if it’s just the cord to the satellite dish.

Screensters from Toddy GearThe International CES (don’t you dare call it Consumer Electronics Show) is coming up next week, and I look forward to prowling its exhibit floor in search of serendipity and the Next Big Thing. That search will include the huge displays that you’ll see in the news, plus lots and lots of small booths that you probably won’t see. That Next Big Thing is often found in one of those little booths, but finding it requires glancing at hundreds of exhibitors promoting stuff that’s actually pretty mundane.

You see, down deep CES is a trade show. Only folks who are involved with the industry are allowed to attend (if you want to qualify, see my workaround). With all these industry people walking around, a lot of companies are just trying to get their products featured in stores. And a lot of those products are accessories to popular devices, accessories that are just a little better, or just a little different, than what’s already available. For example, I know from a press release that the fine folks at Toddy Gear will use their CES appearance to unveil Screensters, “their latest collection of cleaning solutions for touchscreens and sensitive surfaces. Inspired by the characters you encounter in everyday life and catered to children and adults alike.” We all need cleaners for our smartphones and tablets, and these look as good as any of them. But I really don’t think that I’ll be telling my grandkids about the time I was present for the debut of Screensters.

Take that scenario and multiply it by hundreds. Need an iPhone case? CES exhibitors will have hundreds, maybe thousands of models available. G-Form has a case that dropped 100,000 feet to “a rocky hillside” and successfully protected its iPhone 5. (I’ve embedded G-Form’s video below.) There’s OtterBox, a well-known company from Colorado that’s been making great protective cases for years. And there will be dozens of other companies with multi-colored, character-licensed, oddly textured, or just plain cheap iPhone cases on display.

How about some earbuds for that iPhone? For every earbud that monitors your vital signs (cool!), there are dozens of fine, regular earbuds on display. Want speakers? You’ll find lots of really wonderful speakers in every size for every purpose. And the same for electronic toys and connection cables and car stereos. And every booth is operated by earnest, friendly people who are eager to tell you about the fine quality and unmatched user experience provided by their earbuds (or iPhone cases, or speakers, or whatever) if you pause long enough to let them get started. I haven’t yet learned a diplomatic way to tell them, “I thought I saw something relevant to what I cover, but as you explain it, I see that I was wrong. Excuse me, but I need to move on to glance quickly at the next 20 rows of small booths.”

Make no mistake, there are truly innovative technologies that are first exhibited at CES. And you can get a feel for trends just by seeing what technologies are attracting a crowd. Two years ago, there were dozens of different electronic book readers with little to distinguish themselves from each other. Last year, there were dozens of Android tablets that looked a lot alike. I wonder what everyone will be showing this year.

CES has some great stuff to see, but sometimes it’s just a needle in a haystack. What I learned is that to find that needle, you’ve got to look at a whole lot of hay. I’ll tell you here what I find next week.

Lauren Goode published a great hands-on review of Dyle mobile TV service, which she tried on two coasts. Thanks to a $100 accessory, she could watch up to five channels with spotty reception and a full slate of commercials. As she noted, Dyle can’t record shows for later viewing and well, it’s just not that great.

Goode tried to be nice, including the Dyle company line that one of these days it’ll fit into devices that will be a lot more convenient and stuff. “But, for now,” she concluded, “Dyle is just a niche thing for consumers who really like to watch local TV on their phones, and its content is still too limited to make it appealing.” For a full step-by-step description of the service and its day-to-day frustrations, you really should go read it!