A Growing Menu: Content-to-Go

Spiritual guru Deepak Chopra, NBC reality show Fear Factor, and Zanies comedy clubs are among many brands jumping aboard the very slow-moving mobile bandwagon. They’ve partnered with wireless platform and content aggregators to offer stripped-down experiences tiny enough to fit on a cellular phone.

Mobile publisher Airborne Entertainment has just announced it will offer cell phone users Chopra-branded aphorisms, meditations, inspirational wallpapers and (presumably soothing) ringtones. More sensationally-inclined folks can treat themselves to sounds and images reprising the fearsome stunts and frightful feedings they’ve come to crave from Fear Factor.

Then, there’s everything in between: sound effects and images from the Star Trek series; cooking tips from the Food Network; good clean jokes from standup comedians and everything you could possibly want to know about the weather, thanks to AccuWeather.

These announcements, and many more, came at the CTIA Wireless I.T. and Entertainment conference, held in Las Vegas Monday through Wednesday. The conference brought together content and entertainment companies, wireless telcos, hardware manufacturers and vendors that provide the technology to present, manage, traffic and bill for wireless content.

AccuWeather is already making money from mobile content, according to Jim Candor, senior vice president of new media. Its original service, with a $2.99 per month price tag, launched this spring on Verizon, then on Alltel and Western Wireless. A new premium service for $3.99 a month includes such things as animated radar imagery, a Hurricane Center, international forecasts, air quality and pollen alerts, humidity and UV index ratings. Candor wouldn’t disclose how much revenue the mobile service had brought in or whether it was profitable, but he did allow that the company is ahead of its revenue goals, and very pleased with the service.

InfoSpace Mobile is another company leaping into paid mobile content. It announced its Mobilezone Applications Portfolio, a suite of branded content applications including entertainment, personalization and information offerings. The Bellevue, Wash.-based company hopes to become a protocol-agnostic platform for media companies to provide paid mobile content. “We don’t think media companies should have to care what the phone is capable of,” said Kendra VanderMeulen, InfoSpace Mobile executive vice president. “They should be able to create applications and have them reach customers broadly and across carriers.”

Mobilezone will partner with content providers on technology and marketing, helping them create and deploy mobile content on its platform. It will also promote Mobilezone branded content with carriers. So far, content partners include uclick, whose GoComics mobile service distributes Garfield, FoxTrot and Cathy, Distraction Media, Route Direct and the Associated Press.

Branding and the possibility of generating revenue are important, according to Andy Nulman, president of Airborne Entertainment, but of equal weight is getting into the mobile space. “It’s taking what they have leveraged in other media and bringing it to a new medium,” he said. “At the end of the day, the most important part is that it’s a new paradigm, a new way to reach people.” Airborne is a platform for creating and distributing mobile games and content, working with a mix of media companies including cable channels such as HBO, and magazines like Maxim and YM.

Nulman wouldn’t divulge the terms of the deals with Chopra and the Food Network, but he did say they are partnerships, not licensing deals. Nor would he spill how much money Airborne is making. He did say the company saw a 200 percent annual growth in dollars, and thousands of percent growth in use of the company’s downloads and SMS products.

“It’s definitely happening,” said InfoSpace Mobile’s VanderMeulen, “You can tell people are willing to pay by looking at the [revenue] results of the carriers.”

Not so fast, says Jupiter Research lead wireless analyst Avi Greengart. “It’s all ringtones,” Greengart asserts. He points out that while Qualcomm , provider of wireless technologies including BREW, a platform for downloading paid applications, said it had facilitated 500 million application downloads, there’s no way to know what percent were actual applications rather than new tunes for the ringing function. (A Qualcomm spokesperson could not provide information on the types of applications downloaded, nor what percent were paid applications.) Jupiter Research and this publication share a corporate parent.

Vendors like Qualcomm and InfoSpace Mobile, a business of InfoSpace, Inc., have been struggling to build a thriving marketplace for mobile content rivaling those in Europe and Asia. “American companies are seeing what’s happening in the UK and trying to figure out if it’s going to work in the U.S,” said Rafat Ali, editor-in-chief of industry newsletter PaidContent. He said the lack of interoperability between handsets and the need for content creators to develop for multiple handsets and networks have stifled mobile content development in the States. Meanwhile,”Even though it’s not that old a market, ringtones is a commodity market. Everybody and anybody is doing it.”

There are also too many hands in the pot. “The telecom operators take a huge cut out of whatever they sell,” Ali said, “in some cases as much as 60 or 70 percent of whatever the user paid. Then, there are technology vendors and gateways who also get a cut of the revenues. The actual content provider’s share is not that great.”

Consumer resistance to the paid model is another inhibiting factor, Jupiter’s Greengart said. Jupiter’s last survey found that taking photos and playing games on phones ranked last on a list of wanted features. The most-wanted feature was small size, followed by polyphonic ringtones, then a color screen. “Users overwhelmingly choose free if given a choice between a free phone and one that does your laundry,” he said.

Wildseed hopes to entice consumers to pay for more features by appealing to their fashion sense. Its line of chip-enabled phone faceplates, called Smart Skins, contain custom content related to a particular brand or entertainer. Each Smart Skin changes the phone’s applications, the look of the screen and the ringtone to reflect the theme, while the screen provided links to more mobile content on the carrier’s site. Fashion brands French Kitty and Hot Kiss have signed up for Smart Skins, as has hip-hop star Nelly. Wildseed Vice President of Marketing Cindy Smith said the fashion companies would receive a cut of the sales of the $25 to $50 Smart Skins. An entertainer such as Nelly would receive royalties similar to those of a CD, “and it might be more lucrative,” Smith said.

Of course, brand awareness may be as much of an enticement as cash in the bottom line. For comics working the Zanies chain it’s great exposure, according to General Manager Linda Moses. “Up until this point, the biggest thing a comic could do was get a spot on the Tonight Show. Now, anyone who has a cell phone can see them. If they like them, they can go to their Web site and find out club addresses or the schedule.”

Andy Nulman, president of Airborne, said, “It’s obviously important to generate revenue, no one is doing this for free. But at the end of the day, the most important part is that it’s a new paradigm, a new way to reach people. It’s taking what [content creators] have leveraged in other media and bringing it to a new medium.”

“It’s definitely a risky investment,” Greengart said. “But if your goal is to position yourself as a technologically savvy, with-you-in multiple-places brand, doing mobile content may make sense.”

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