Like the equipment being built inside HP and DoCoMo labs, the sight of cell phone users watching videos on their tiny screens is still years away from a full-scale launch, acknowledges Susie Wee, manager of streaming media technologies at HP Labs.
However, 2002 marked a milestone for cell phone video because three U.S. carriers launched the first "picture messaging" services, which use combination cell phone/cameras to send a still photo to any other Web-enabled phone or personal computer, she said. HP and NTT DoCoMo's equipment takesto the next step by replacing still images with moving ones, such as a 30-second movie trailer or 15-second replay from a sporting or news event, she said.
Whether wireless video ever catches on with the world's 1 billion cell phone users remains an important question for carriers counting on these and other new services for new revenue sources. For now, only about 2 percent of U.S. wireless phone subscribers use any wireless Web services, including picture messaging or downloading games, according to market analysts the Yankee Group.
But by 2006, the Yankee Group said it expects 70 percent of all U.S. wireless users to take part in some wireless Web surfing or game playing, with over-the-air video news highlights and wireless video conferencing among the services customers seem most to want.
"We're trying to get to the next level of media connectivity," Wee said.
To do that, HP and NTT said they've spent the past two years re-designing equipment used to create content delivery networks (CDN), and plan to sell the gear to carriers and large companies once its ready.
A CDN is a network of sometimes thousands of computer servers used to send data over the Web. Major customers of CDNs, like those run by Akamai Technologies, Inktomi and Centerspan Communications, include video-streaming companies that want help sending their data-rich streams over the Web. Internet service providers also use CDNs to unclog Web traffic jams.
Most CDNs, including Centerspan Communications, don't see much of a need yet to stream video to cell phones, even in Asia where cell phone users are usually first to adopt new technologies, said Andrew Mallinger, Centerspan's marketing vice president. But even there, no one has launched a wireless video service.
"There's just not a lot of demand from service providers delivering the content that we deliver," he said. Representatives from other CDNs did not return calls for comment.Talk to the edge server
One of the new features HP and DoCoMo added to their CDN was software that automatically lets it share the work of sending a video to a cell phone.
For instance, a server overwhelmed with requests for a video can automatically enlist the help of other servers that aren't as busy, Wee said.
The CDN's servers also can notice patterns, like what time of day a certain video is being requested the most. The servers can then make sure to have the video on hand for the next day's predicted crush, according to a statement from DoCoMo.