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Qualcomm's FloTV Is Addictive (Video)

We are a TV nation, but all of the action seems to be around eReaders. Next week's Apple press event is expected to reveal a device that is SmartPhone/Tablet PC/eReader. But Qualcomm's FloTV is unmatched, and yet virtually unrecognized. Perhaps, then, we are not yet doomed; or maybe FloTV, despite its exquisite quality, just isn't there yet.
We are a TV nation, but all of the action seems to be around eReaders. Next week's Apple press event is expected to reveal a device that is SmartPhone/Tablet PC/eReader. But Qualcomm's FloTV is unmatched, and yet virtually unrecognized. Perhaps, then, we are not yet doomed; or maybe FloTV, despite its exquisite quality, just isn't there yet.For a video demo of FloTV, there is a video embedded further below.

FloTV has offered its service on special Verizon and AT&T handsets since 2007, but it announced its own direct-to-consumer offering at CTIA last Fall. It began shipping through retail partners (Amazon, Target, RadioShack, Best Buy and others) right before the Christmas holidays.

For the latest Apple tablet news opinion and conversation, be sure to check out InformationWeek's Special Report: Tablet Wars -- Can Apple Three-peat?

The company also recently announced a deal with Mophie, where the FloTV chip is integrated into a Mophie Juice Pack for your iPhone. That will be available in the first half of the year. The FloTV device retails for $249 which includes the first six months of service. After that, it's $14.99 per month. FloTV is working on trials in the UK with BSkyB, and with carriers in Japan, Tawain, and Latin American; obviously it's more difficult to acquire spectrum outside the U.S.

Qualcomm won't say how sales are going, only that it is pleased, which, frankly, means nothing. I've had a unit for almost a month, and I can say that I am pleased; I can even tell you what that means. But I probably won't purchase the device, not just because I don't want my life (mobile or stationary) revolving around television, but because FloTV would need more live sports to truly compel me, especially since I can program my own content with a DVR.

Here's the good stuff: Qualcomm has its own slice of the 700 MHz spectrum, it covers 112 markets across the country, and the 20 channels that it can fit in its spectrum is about as mainstream as I could ask for (MTV, Comedy Central, the four major networks, ESPN, The Food Network, Nickelodeon, Disney and more). Most of the programming is recorded, Qualcomm's argument (besides the difficulties associated with pumping lots of live streams down its pipes) is that there is little reason to watch programs when the networks want you to.

Sports and news, however, are live. On New Year's Day I watched various college bowl games and basketball, for instance. On January 5, I watched MSNBC's coverage of the President's live address on the nation's airport security posture.

Now the bad stuff: 20 channels is all it can fit, so this is all you get. Jeff Gattis, FloTV's Director of Product Management says that the company is working on partnerships and packaging options. At CES earlier this month, FloTV announced it would provide 1200 live sporting events in 2010, including March Madness (OK, admittedly, I might buy it just for that . . . or mysteriously decide not to give the device back until April; somebody's got to test all 112 markets). He also said there might be different packaged offerings around a group of channels -- so perhaps a sports tier or a news tier. But for now, you get what FloTV gives you. Perhaps Qualcomm can manage to buy additional spectrum, too (like how I spend their money?)

Yes, it's only the programming that is problematic. Maybe American Idol should be live, or the Oscars, but that's easy enough to do, I'm sure. The best part is that the broadcast quality is excellent. Although sporting events are always better served with a little bit bigger screen, you can make out the players, the stream was never jerky unless I re-located (and then, only for a few seconds until it locked into the signal), and never blurry (the screen is QVGA and the broadcast comes at 30 frames per second). The touch interface was dead simple, with one-button access to the channel guide and simple channel selection. I was able to set parental controls, and create reminders for shows I wanted to watch in the future. There's really not much more to it. Hell, it's a TV for goodness sake. The best part: I don't think there are laws for watching while driving! (Kidding. Sort of. I did have it on in the car just to see what happened when I changed location or went mobile . . . but I wasn't watching except at a traffic light.)

Battery life was also good: a bit over four hours. There's no progressive streaming, no buffering at the client. FloTV doesn't alter the broadcast signal at all. All of the optimization happens at its operations center.

Although Gattis wouldn't say much about customer uptake, he did say that the average viewer is watching 25 minutes per day, and that he sees a big spike at noon. Some of the customer feedback includes the ability to record content, and "catch up TV" (pushing content to the device in off peak hours to be stored and watched later). One other futuristic note: for devices that include FloTV on a regular phone handset, the company can think about doing back channel interactivity with the live video, Gattis said.

There are other mobile TV services, including some that work over 3G. I've watched this market for years, but live programming has been the trickiest aspect. Sling lets you watch content from your TV at home (even DVR content) "slung" to a BlackBerry or iPhone wherever you are, but I've only seen this over WiFi.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

I am on the jury for the Cloud Connect Launch Pad , produced by TechWeb. This is a competition that lets companies present their innovative application (either in development and about to launch, or recently launched) to the Cloud Connect community in March. Feel free to submit an entry, following the contest rules.

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