We've always wanted to take our electronics with us. It started with vacuum tube radios. Even if they used three heavy batteries and the housing was a big suitcase, they had a handle, and that made them portable. Then came radios in cars, handheld transistor radios, and the Sony Walkman. Today we have the iPod, Game Boys, and the RAZR. More music players, game systems, and cell phones are on the way with features and forms for every taste. These advances are possible now that everything has been digitized.
Retro Radio Still Hot
Believe it or not, traditional analog AM and FM radio are still popular and widely used. There's no doubt they will continue to thrive, even with the growing use of satellite and HD Radio. One key trend is the inclusion of single-chip FM radio chips in MP3 players, audio headsets, and cell phones. FM radio is even available on a plug-in USB dongle for laptops.
Satellite radio from Sirius and XM has been around for a few years, and it continues to grow. Most new cars and trucks now include a satellite radio option, and dozens of aftermarket radios are additionally available. Tabletop radios haven't been as popular, but they're still out there. Even handheld satellite radios are on the market, though they need a clear line of sight to the satellite for good performance.
One of these handhelds, Pioneer's Inno, lets users download XM Radio songs and store them for playback on its internal MP3 player. The music industry has sued XM, since it doesn't like the Inno's ability to record digital music. Meanwhile, Sirius' S50 can store and play up to 50 hours of recorded audio content.
HD Radio is an established technology, even though it's still relatively unknown. Over 700 U.S. stations offer HD AM and FM service, yet few radios have found their way to consumers. Most consumers don't even know that it exists. It's available in aftermarket car radios and in some tabletops. Portable radios will be available as well. It will become more popular once the automobile manufacturers start including it as an option.
It took years for satellite radio manufacturers to get their products into cars, so don't hold your breath waiting for HD Radio to turn up in your local showroom. It will happen eventually. But given the competition with satellite and conventional AM/FM radios, HD Radio may have to wait until combined AM/FM/satellite/HD auto units come around.
Audio: The King Of Mobile Media
For the last couple of years, Apple's iPod has been the must-have electronic gadget. Now, lots of accessories are available to make the listening experience much more convenient. Docking stations with amps and speakers extend the music beyond those white bud earphones. Some wireless devices let users pump their iPod tunes through their car's sound system via FM or Bluetooth signals. Expect more music sources and larger flash and hard drives in the future.
Also, MP3 players are appearing in other products, like Pioneer's Inno. But they're especially migrating toward cell phones, like Motorola's ROKR. Samsung's SGH-i310 cell phone has an 8-Gbyte hard drive for music storage (Fig. 1). And, Sony Ericsson's smash hit Walkman-Phone tripled the company's first quarter profits.
But Apple is holding its own with additional iPod features. The small color LCD screen on the nano lets users view digital photos, music videos, and even segments of TV shows. Now that they have big hard drives, they can accommodate video just as easily as audio.
Video: The Eventual Mobile Media Victor
Mobile video has always been difficult. Thanks to smaller and faster processors, bigger and cheaper memory devices, and brilliant LCD screens, it's now relatively easy. The main issue is video content. Conventional TV shows, movies, and other video programs just aren't made for the small screen. Yet new content is being developed with small dimensions in mind.
Mobile TV has been available for Small, battery-powered TVs the beach or in the car. reception has always been a problem, though, with marginal antennas like a single whip or rabbit ears—especially for TV in cars where the signal reception changes second by second. Handheld TVs like the Sony Watchman also are available. While it has never been popular, the Watchman has set the stage for more small screen TVs.
Let's not forget portable DVD players. Even with screen sizes up to 7 in., they've dropped below $100. Many SUVs, vans, and high-end cars now come with DVD players, and aftermarket models are available for autos that don't offer them already. In some cases, the DVD player is combined with the in-dash navigation system. While watching TV isn't recommended for drivers, in-dash video is coming. Drivers in Europe and Asia already have it. Can it succeed here?
The most intriguing trend is cell-phone TV. Over 500,000 subscribers now get short videos via the MobiTV service from Sprint Nextel, Cingular, and Verizon. Users can download short video segments from the major networks and store the video in flash or watch it via streaming data from the carrier. Quality is only fair, with relatively low resolution at no better than 15 frames per second (fps), but it's watchable.
Available from Sprint Nextel, LiveLocal lets subscribers download content from the WNI Network. It includes local news, weather, sports, traffic, and other broadcasts. LiveLocal is provided by Weathernews, which has over 1.5 million paying mobile subscribers. MTV has downloads available for subscribers using Amp'd cell phones. And, VH1's Pocket VH1 mobile storefront is available through some of the major carriers.
The predictions for mobile TV are very positive. Research firm IDC indicates that within four years, there could be as many as 26 million cell-phone video subscribers spending up to $3 billion per year. Another research firm, iSuppli, expects this year's approximately $538 million in video content to grow to $16.6 billion in four years.
Meanwhile, Vision Gain predicts the mobile TV market to grow from 2005's 5 million units to over 105 million units by 2009. The worldwide mobile content market could reach $59 billion by 2009, as reported by Juniper Research. The technology is here right now, so high-quality, relevant content will drive its growth.
There will be much more cell-phone TV as more content is developed for the small screen. Carriers will stream it or make it available to download via video on demand (VoD). Any cell phone with 2.5G or 3G basestations can accommodate streaming video. A GSM phone with EDGE can handle it too, as will CDMA phones with cdma2000, EV-DO, or UMTS WCDMA. A minimum of 100 kbits/s to 300 kbits/s are necessary to deliver MPEG4/H.264 compressed video to a small screen.
There's one big problem with video supplied by the carriers, though. If too many subscribers try to watch at once, the network capacity will be exceeded, shutting off the service or making performance so bad that it's unwatchable. Besides, too much video will decrease voice bandwidth, making phone calls less reliable. The carriers want you to use the high-speed connection, but not too much. Balancing the system for voice and video will be the trick.
To overcome this problem, several companies have planned independent mobile TV networks that don't use the cellular carrier to deliver the content. Instead, these new networks will broadcast their content directly to a separate receiver in the handset.
The first company to announce such a service was Crown Castle, a cell tower owner. Its Modeo system will use the European Digital Video Broadcast-Handhelds (DVB-H) mobile TV standard to broadcast over a 5-MHz chunk of spectrum near 1.67 GHz. The company is expected to roll out its multichannel services in 2007.
Another mobile TV broadcast system, Qualcomm's MediaFLO, will broadcast multiple channels of content on previous UHF TV channel 55 in the 716- to 722-MHz spectrum. Service is expected in 2007. Hiwire, the newest mobile TV provider and a subsidiary of Aloha Partners, owns 12 MHz of spectrum in the 700-MHz range as well. Hiwire is expected to offer a variety of video content over DVB-H compatible cell phones.
Will people really watch TV on their cell phone? Surveys overwhelmingly say no, but that remains to be seen. Once content formatted for the small screen becomes available, companies are betting that more than a few consumers will spring for it. Two-hour movies won't be practical. But music videos and short news, weather, and sport segments should be popular.
Cell-phone TV may end up as only a niche. But with cell-phone handset sales expected to range from 900 million to 1 billion units this year, that niche may be 100 million units or more. What company wouldn't battle for that?
Kids absolutely love handheld game systems like Ninetndo's Game Boy. Their titles are structured for the small screen, and improved resolution and more complicated games keep this mobile media segment booming. Now, the goal is to put more of these games into cell phones. In fact, Motorola recently sponsored a contest to develop some exciting new handset games.
Some Java-based games are already available on cell phones, but they're pretty simple and not that compelling. More and better games are available in Asia, where their acceptance is far more widespread than it is in the U.S. But as the screen size and resolution in cell phones improve, more sophisticated games are expected.
One major problem is the user interface. PC-based games use sophisticated controllers with joysticks, wheels, and multiple buttons. But only a button or two may be available on a cell phone. Games have to be developed to accommodate limited controls, as well as small screen sizes. But the games are coming, including online interactive games that have become the rage on the PC.
Mobile Media Challenges
The only thing that will make mobile media successful is the content. Music is a no-brainer, as there is something for everyone and the music industry has finally made it possible to buy music online. But it's a different story for video. Movies don't translate well to the small screen, and their length is sure to kill your battery anyway.
As a result, most mobile media video will be newly created short (15 to 20 minutes) segments designed to be viewed on a 2- or 3-in. LCD screen. This material will be supplied through cell-phone carriers as well as via independent services. Content is limited right now, but look for a flood in the near future. Games will follow a similar path. A few are available now, but better games will follow.
For a while, conventional wisdom said that entertainment would converge on the PC. There has been some convergence, but it hasn't been as successful as the pundits expected. Instead, entertainment is converging in the cell phone. Users currently enjoy taking photos, sending and receiving email, and even browsing the Internet. Adding audio and video will only add to its dominance.
But how much can we stuff in a cell phone? Physical limits are one challenge. Users expect smaller, lighter, and more contemporary designs. But smaller chips can only do so much. Battery life is another problem. Lithium-battery capacity diminishes with size. More multimedia features make balancing standby time and recharge frequency with operating time difficult. Users may need to accept larger handsets with more frequent recharges.
Improved power management will be key. Right now, it's impractical to put everything into a single cell phone. Some companies will try it, but most consumers will pick cell phones that only have the specific features they want, like the BlackBerry for e-mail or the ROKR for music. There will be phone combinations for everyone.
Major semiconductor companies like Analog Devices, Freescale, and Texas Instruments all offer chip sets that make the inclusion of multimedia features relatively simple. Doug Grant of Analog Devices indicates that two basic architectures have emerged. One approach uses two separate processors— one for regular phone functions and the other for multimedia applications. In newer designs, a single chip combines all processors into one.
The Analog Devices AD6900 LeMans baseband processor is an example of the latter, combining ADI's Blackfin DSP and an ARM9 processor. Grant also says that Analog Devices' new motion sensors are ideal for implementing new user interfaces for mobile games.
Berardino Baratta, general manager of the Multimedia Applications Division at Freescale, points out that his company's MXC300-30 platform also uses a single-chip baseband containing Freescale's StarCore DSP combined with an ARM11 processor (Fig. 2). Both of these devices make multimedia implementation faster and easier.
Audio and video downloads require more memory than ever, despite compression. Flash and hard drives both are being used. But flash continues to get bigger, and it comes attractively packaged for plugging into cell phones or other devices. Samsung's MultiMediaCard (MMCmicro) combines four of the company's 4-Gbit NAND flash devices to create a 2-Gbyte module (Fig. 3). The card can store 12 hours of mobile video and is fast enough to download three hours of video in less than two minutes.
"Toshiba's NAND Flash is finding its way into a wide variety of mobile consumer electronics devices that use this high-density storage medium for music or video in portable media players, photos and video in digital still cameras and camcorders, and increasingly sophisticated cell phones," said Scott Nelson, director, memory marketing, for Toshiba America Electronic Components Inc.
Consumer demand continues to be nearly insatiable as densities have grown to a gigabyte or more in a single component. Performance/value continues to improve by storing multiple bits per cell and using smaller process geometries. Market analyst firm Web-Feet Research expects this trend to continue as the forecast price per gigabyte declines from $32/Gbyte in 2005 to $6/Gbyte in 2010.
Meanwhile, the Mobile Industry Processor Interface Alliance aims to establish specifications for standard hardware and software interfaces for mobile application processors. Check out the group's progress at www.mipi.org.