Tuesday, October 19, 2004

This little cell phone could be after my job

Tech Tuesday

Click here to e-mail James
In about 10 or 15 years, WCPO-TV weatherman Pete Delkus and I may not have jobs.

Or at least, our jobs could be drastically different - all because of the ever-expanding functions of a cell phone.

For more than a month now, I've been playing around with Sprint's new Samsung multimedia phone, which downloads updated video from such content providers as the Weather Channel, CNN and Fox Sports. (I finally could bear to watch the Red Sox highlights Monday after previous drubbings by the Yankees.)

The video is still choppy, but the onscreen text is readable - already a big improvement from Sprint's other offering, MobiTV. And the audio is as good as any radio.

More important, the video is being created directly for this new information outlet. There is a guy who works for the Weather Channel outside of Atlanta - his name is Adam Berg - who does nothing but tape broadcasts for cell phones.

At nearly $400, depending on the plan, the phone itself is still pricey, as is the service (it costs about $10 a month for the basic service, and then up to $5 per channel per month on top of the regular cell-phone bill).

Sprint says that it is too early to tell whether there is a market for this, since the service was just rolled out little more than a month ago.

"We're just trying to put a flag in the sand for multimedia devices," said Sprint communications manager Mark McHale. "We think we're creating a new medium here."

But Weather Channel officials say they have been pleased with initial results.

"We should not overestimate the potential for this yet, but we see signs that this could grow faster than our other products," said Louis Gump, director of mobile products and services for the Weather Channel.

"We started this in 1999, and it was only last year that it began to take off. And between the first quarter of 2003 and the first quarter of this year, revenue has increased over 400 percent. ... So that shows we have a viable business here."

And cable outlets are not the only "content providers" jumping on the cell-phone bandwagon.

Newspapers join in

For years, newspapers in Europe have been instant messaging news and sports updates to subscribers. Some in England even run music reviews and then allow users to download a ring tone to the tune of their favorite song of that album.

Domestically, other publishers are starting to catch up. AvantGo, the Internet clipping service that downloads content to personal data assistants, is still going strong.

And here locally, Cincinnati.com - the online arm of the Enquirer that also hosts the web pages of The Cincinnati Post and WCPO - has teamed up with Cincinnati Bell to provide local content for wireless subscribers who also have the wireless Web.

Another experiment with instant University of Kansas basketball game updates from the Lawrence Journal-World brought 8,000 sign-ups, not bad for a town of about 50,000.

But while it is a thrill to see my byline on my cell phone, it still makes me wonder about how much differently I might have to perform my job. The alternative? Being outsourced by a cell phone.

Think about it. More and more homes are going wireless, using a cell as their primary phone. Are the TV and newspaper next?

Who gathers news?

But experts seem to think that while society's appetite for information in a more timely way has become all but ravenous in the last 10 years, thanks to 24-hour cable news, there will still be a need for those to gather and present it.

"We in newspapers used to think that just because we landed on the front driveway each week, that we were important," said Melinda Gipson, director of electronic publishing for the Newspaper Association of America. "Well, we're not landing on everyone's porch every day, and we need to keep our status as a platform for the marketplace of ideas."

She notes that content of print newspapers has changed and will continue to change, with shorter stories along with more graphics and photos. Now, readers could get a flash short version for their phones, which tease to a longer article in the paper or online.

But Gipson said as the technology advances, publishers of all media need to be aggressive, otherwise cell-phone companies could start their own news channels, which would then be another competitor.

For broadcasters, the implications of newscasts or highlight reels over cell phones also are unclear. It could provide a more immediate connection with viewers, or the technology could fizzle.

"My answer to these things is always that it is not going to be as big as some say, but that it isn't going to be nothing, either," said Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcasting and online news at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. "One thing we already know is that broadcasters simply cannot wait until the evening broadcast to start thinking about the public.

"If you could deliver really useful information, then it would be something people would find valuable. ... So I really think that only breaking news would be very popular."

Tompkins also points out that the phones we are seeing today may not be what will wind up in our hands in even five years.

So maybe I will have a job after all.

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com

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