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ESPN testing video for handhelds

Sports giant is experimenting with preloading clips onto handhelds to avoid quality issues with streamed media.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--ESPN is testing new video services for wireless devices, taking a page from the playbook of its popular Web download service, a company executive said Tuesday.

John Zehr, ESPN Mobile's vice president of product development, said the sports news site is experimenting with several wireless providers to preload video onto handhelds--rather than streaming the entertainment--much as it already does with ESPN Motion, an application that preloads sports highlights onto millions of PCs daily. That way, wireless users can watch video automatically and in higher quality on the handheld, he said. (Streaming media can suffer delays from bandwidth limitations or network problems.)

With downloads, "we control the quality of our sports content," said Zehr during a panel on mobile rich media at the Streaming Media West conference.

But he acknowledged that the method of video delivery is limited by the storage capacity of handheld devices.

Download versus live streaming media is a needling dilemma for entertainment and content providers that are looking to build new services for the PC or for Internet Protocol-connected devices.

It will be an especially pertinent question for content providers as new multimedia services come to mobile phones. ESPN and many other content providers are quickly expanding their businesses to mobile devices, as U.S. wireless carriers such as Sprint and Verizon Communications catch up with Asia and Europe and begin to support multimedia for their phone subscribers.

On the one hand, streaming can be attractive because content providers only pay to deliver media to people requesting their content. The downside, however, is that video-stream quality can suffer because of bandwidth limitations and other factors.

Downloads avoid the quality issues by precaching the video onto users' hard drives. For this reason, Disney, Sony Pictures Digital and Universal Pictures have opted to preload content onto users' machines with their new services. But delivering video automatically to thousands or millions of PCs can be financially wasteful if it's not consumed. Precached video is also by its nature less immediate. For example, a sports junkie wanting to see a replay couldn't get that clip with predownloaded sports highlights.

"The application depends on the content," said Benjamin Feinman, senior product manager at Apple Computer's QuickTime division, which develops video compression technology, servers and players for PCs and mobile devices.

Apple's Feinman said streaming media is essential for wider adoption among consumers. He cited as an example adoption of multimedia services in Asian countries.

In Japan, downloaded media on handhelds is more popular because the country's devices are commonly high-end, with robust storage for content. Also, the networks are less powerful, making it tough for them to support the bandwidth necessary for streaming media. In contrast, networks in South Korea are more robust and devices are cheaper. As a result, streaming media is the more prevalent method of content delivery to wireless devices there.

Feinman promised the audience that Apple would continue to innovate in compression technology, or codecs, to improve the data delivery rates to support high definition video one day. Apple currently supports the standards-based codecs in MPEG-4, or AVC.

Other executives believe that content providers' acceptance of downloaded video through companies such as Maven Networks and others is just a step toward full adoption of streaming in the coming years, when bandwidth restrictions are lifted.

"Downloading is just a placeholder for streaming media until the cable (firms) take the limits off their pipes and ratchet up the bandwidth," said Scott Hill, an Internet media executive attending the conference.