The consumer electronics show this year marked a turning point in the convergence of consumer and enterprise digital technologies.
The keynote schedule told the story—from Bill Gates sixth-straight preshow opener, in which he demonstrated a personal video player, to Intels Paul Otellini and his HDTV chip to Carly Fiorinas surprising late-night deal with Apple and its iPod platform. Even FCC Chairman Michael Powell heralded the transition in a keynote interview, noting that Microsofts Xbox Live was essentially VOIP and that consumer electronics devices have been recast from "toys" to "lifestyle management" devices.
Nowhere is this transformation more apparent than in cell phones. Driven by carriers bundling cameras with entry-level phones, cell phones are forcing PDAs aside as the foundation of enterprise platforms. Current bandwidth limitations are the only thing holding camera phones back from being videoconferencing end points. Bluetooth already lets me ship images and even video from my Nokia 3650 to my Macintosh laptop or, via an adapter, to my iPod.
Going the other way, Bluetooth gives my laptop network access for the few times Im out of range of the Wi-Fi grid, albeit at dial-up rates. Turning graphics off helps, but I also have to turn off my RSS reader and its 150-plus subscriptions to avoid saturating the connection. And I frequently lose access with my current provider, AT&T Wireless.
These experiences didnt prepare me for the sight of a Sprint phone emitting live MSNBC broadcasts. The brainchild of Idetic, the MobiTV service streams 15 channels of news, sports, music and childrens programming for a flat fee exclusive of your Sprint airtime.
Its just one or two frames a second, but thats enough to render the gist of talking-head news reports. The audio plays through the speakerphone on several models or through an ear bud for privacy in noisy surroundings. Audio is prioritized over video, with frame rates improving with better signal reception.
The core of the service is a highly scalable transaction management system, built in C and C++ to handle mass-market loads. Java and Brew connect to the back end, leveraging a common set of technologies that include content and transaction caching, compression, network optimization, connection and request pooling, interfaces to multiple carriers, logging, and billing.
In several days of living with the device, a low-end ($50 to $70 with activation) Samsung camera phone, the service worked in virtually all conditions—in the car, high-rise office buildings, even tunnels—but not underground parking lots. When reception weakened, audio sometimes dropped but was cached and picked up from that point in the stream.
The screen size—approximately 126 by 92 pixels—made it impossible to read news crawls or financial data on CNBC, but that data could be fed to the closed-caption window below the video area. Idetic CEO and Chairman Phillip Alvelda said XML is used extensively as the transaction language communicating to the servers and as the underlying format for caption feeds from CNN, ESPN, ABC and other networks.
Currently, phones running on the Sprint network will not interrupt the stream for a phone call, although one phone, the Samsung A620, will interrupt for a text message. Enabling interactive feedback, planned by Idetic for the future, would allow polling, voting, upselling and home shopping transactions.
Next on my wish list are DVR capabilities—the ability to pause or store and retrieve news segments, weather reports, sports replays or even ads. Alvelda said the gating factor for DVR is not so much the technology or limited storage as it is the digital rights management issues that come into play when data is stored even temporarily on the client.
Videoconferencing will have to wait as well, given the asymmetrical nature of todays networks. But that wouldnt prevent some enterprising developers from orchestrating todays combination of Apple iChatAV streams with RSS enclosure routers and hooking up to Idetics back-end servers to create a new world of disruptive real-time networks. Dont forget to say cheese.
Contributing Editor Steve Gillmor is editor of eWEEK.coms Messaging and Collaboration Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.