Mobile TV and Music On Cell Phones: Can Openers On Screwdrivers?

David Sims : First Coffee
David Sims
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Mobile TV and Music On Cell Phones: Can Openers On Screwdrivers?

By David Sims

The news as of the first coffee this morning, and the music is Randy Crawford’s great cover of “Rainy Night In Georgia:”

You know, folks, not every idea is a good one, and not every product dreamed up in big-money conference rooms and backed by smart Silicon Valley venture capital is going to be wildly snapped up by millions. Gruesome horror stories abound, but First Coffee is thinking specifically of TV and other “premium” services on cell phones.

It’s one of those “why not?” ideas, instead of a “here’s how” idea, a shaky foundation right there.

“Why not?” ideas are New Coke, putting books on CD-ROM, France or letting Magic Johnson host a TV talk show. They don’t fill any need, nobody was standing in line for them, there aren’t any problems they solve, “why not?” ideas hope demand spontaneously generates around the product. It might work, never know until you try, cf. Pet Rocks and Democratic presidential nominees. No telling what someone might buy.

“Here’s how” ideas are ones that fill an actual need – cell phones themselves, call waiting or satellite dishes. Paperback books, Jolt Cola and giving Jay Leno the Tonight Show. 500-pound bombs on “safe houses” in Iraq. Genuine problem-solvers.

VoIP was a “here’s how” idea. It’s a cute combination of gee-whiz, because-we-can technology and a genuine need – cheaper phone calls. There’s always a need for cheaper phone calls.

Video phones were a “why not?” bust, bit the dust, done and rusted and good riddance to ‘em. Sure they were technologically possible, but not something human beings needed or would pay for. Caller ID, on the other hand, was a smashing success because it solved the “here’s how” problem of “How do I tell if it’s a telemarketer or that guy who got my phone number from Marcia? before picking up the phone.

CRM was a “here’s how” idea, which is why it succeeded. Customers really wanted companies to do a better job serving them, they were willing to patronize companies who offered better customer service, so companies figured out ways to do that – hook up all customer contact points within an organization so if Joe Friendly called in one time and sent an e-mail a week later, the next time he called the customer service rep would have a record of that e-mail, what was said and what action was taken.

Blogging is a “here’s how” idea. Thousands of people want a way to chime in, spout off and otherwise join the national cacophony. There needed to be a way to let them do this, so presto! Web logs were pressed into service and have morphed far beyond their original raison d’etre, just like the Internet itself.

Podcasting is a “why not?” idea. We can do it, so why not do it? Few podcasts are seen by anyone outside of immediate family and friends, there’s no real need it fills the way does.

Selling TV and music over cell phones is a “why not?” idea. Tell me, where is a person forced to rely on a cell phone to fill an urgent need to watch TV? Anyone addicted to The Sopranos or As The World Turns has already arranged his or her life to be around a TV at that time, what else? Airports? You can’t get away from TVs in airports. You have a TV at home, in the break room at work, at any friend’s house, in your neighborhood bar. In cars? Besides the fact that they now have TVs in cars for people who can’t afford Ritalin, are you ever really in a car so long that you have to watch TV? Rarely. Certainly not long enough to justify a $40-a month plan to watch midgets impersonating TV characters.

Just like the “fully-wired house,” or whatever they’re calling that techie geek hell where your computer controls all your household appliances, it’s something that sure, it’s possible, but no genuine human being really wants to live that way, nobody except the clinically dead think it’s a good idea to spend half a day figuring out how to program a computer to make toast.

Microcash, that idea where people can pay 25 cents here and 50 cents there online; virtual sales reps where a computer-animated face spewed the canned prompts (“Hi, I’m Vicky, like my 38 D bustline?”), buying pets or groceries online, all examples of “why not?” technology and products that filled no real need, met no real demand and all flatlined, some thrashed around in more protracted, grisly, agonizing deaths than others.

“While the number of U.S. cell phone users has doubled over the past six years to 215 million, only around 1% of them regularly use cell phones to watch videos, for example. Cell phones also are facing competition from iPods, Blackberries and other multimedia devices,” The Wall Street Journal reports this morning.

There you go. Blackberries are a “here’s how” product: How do I check my e-mail when I’m away from the office and not around one of those airport computers which isn’t being monopolized by a 13-year old kid on his second hour of playing Doom? You can argue that people went overboard with Blackberries, but like all good inventions – talk radio, bourbon – it’s liable to overuse.

IPods, classic “here’s how” products – how do I listen to my downloaded music when I’m away from the computer? IPods that play video, the jury’s out. Portable music makes sense because you can do so many other things while it’s on, portable video doesn’t because that’s all you can do.

But First Coffee has never been around someone getting the shakes saying “Damn, I wish I could watch American Chopper, but I’m not around a TV, I don’t know where I can get to one and if I don’t see what bike Paulie’s building I won’t be responsible for my actions… hey lemme see your cell phone, does it get TV?” Such instances are rare, folks, certainly not frequent enough to support a billion-dollar industry.

And why do you need a cell phone to play music? There’s no way it can do it as well as an iPod, it just makes the phone more expensive and it’s one more thing to go wrong. What, you can’t afford an iPod? Get a job.

Read those stats from the WSJ again – 215 million people all across this great U.S. of A. of ours yakking away on cell phones day, night and behind you in a movie, and roughly the population of New Mexico uses them to watch videos. That’s not an investment opportunity, friends, that’s a curiosity. Percentagewise more people use screwdrivers to open beer cans when the pop top snaps off, do we see Craftsman putting can openers in the handles of screwdrivers and charging more for them?

Cell phones are wonderful, although as someone said recently, 90% of all cell phone conversations are totally useless – I forget the source so forgive me, write in if you know and I’m happy to attribute, it might’ve been a comedian on TV but the line was something like the only really necessary cell phone conversations are to the auto club when you run out of gas on the Cross Bronx Expressway, or to say you’ll be late because you’re behind some clown who ran out of gas on the Cross Bronx. Cramming more “features” on a cell phone than that gets into “Do I really want to pay for this?” territory.

Some hopeful vendors are trying to come up with “compelling programming” to get people to pay for cell phone TV. Friends, anyone capable of creating programming compelling enough to get people to pay for cell phone TV is going to find himself working for more prestigious, high-paying outfits really soon.

One cell phone TV company is hiring Howard Stern’s former producer to create content. Right. Howard Stern’s producer’s contribution to what everybody liked about Howard Stern’s show was to turn on Howard’s mike, and then go sit in the booth, do crossword puzzles and wrestle any FCC censors to the floor. Any bar bouncer who knew a six-letter word for Japanese tea could do it.

(Note to Rich Tehrani: Let’s have Dave Barry’s former editor at the Miami Herald edit First Coffee, it’ll be as funny and widely-syndicated as Dave’s column and we’ll get our own spin-off TV show! Got the number for the Herald around here somewhere…)

See, Dave Barry’s column was a “here’s how” product: People wanted something funny, smart and consistently good to read in their newspapers, so Dave always had work. First Coffee is a… uh, okay, let’s not mix our metaphors here, we’re drifting.

The point is that anybody who wants TV, or music, already has equivalent options to cell phones, in most cases much better ones. So just because we can put TV and music on cell phones doesn’t mean we need to, or that anybody will pay if we do so.

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