There’s no denying the ubiquity of the cell phone. Since the Motorola “Dynatac” prototype was used to call AT&T rivals in early April 1973 to say “we beat you to it,” the world has voraciously adopted and clamored for the devices. Currently, reports estimate somewhere between 75% and 90% of U.S. adults have a cell phone or are subscribed to a mobile phone service agreement. Around the globe, estimates say there are more than 3 billion phones. Thirty five years after the prototype, it’s clear we can’t live without them.
It’s also clear today’s phones aren’t just for talking. According to a recent report from Pew Internet about 58% of cell phone owning American adults have used their phones for non-voice applications (email, texting, and Internet). 41% have logged into a mobile Internet connection. Today, Smartphones are getting smarter. More and more handsets are packed with the proverbial “everything but the kitchen sink’s” worth of features: music players, cameras, web access, games, touch screens.
As Martin Cooper, the man behind the original Dynatac said in a recent interview "We’re just at an immature stage in the growth of the industry." In his words, “We’ve got another revolution starting now."
For mainstream media, that revolution (as revealed in the mix of ubiquity and feature sets in new phones) presents two massive opportunities. One is mobile phones as a source of content. The other, is as an outlet for it. Recent news from CBS Interactive and from MTV, along with a wealth of existing services, exemplifies each case.
Mobile as Content Generation
When it comes to content generation, one need look no further than the massive volume of cell phone videos and pictures uploaded to websites like YouTube and Flickr. Anyone with a media capable camera phone can share their exhibitionist moments with vast audiences. When that variety show of consumer, novelty centric media isn’t enough, similar submission services are being run by major news media that aim to capture content that’s more topical. CBS News quietly launched their own example just recently.
Via a new website, found at CBSeyemobile.com, anyone with the capacity to take a picture (or video) and send an SMS text message with the attachment can contribute. So, If you are at the right place at the right time? If you snag footage on your camera phone? Then all you need to do is attach and send it to a text message address. It will air on the website, and possibly, if the news is important enough, on CBS’ broader news service too. So ff you’re going to a presidential election rally, don’t forget that phone.
CBSeyemobile.com is similar service to a rival citizen journalism program being run by CNN. That service, which is in beta and called iReport, already claims more than 102k contributions. 915 of them, or about 1 %, have been edited and shown as part of breaking news on CNN.com or CNN television. (iReport also allows mobile content submission though it’s handled by email not SMS at this stage)
That news outlets are looking to conscript everyday people into a massive army of freelance photographers isn’t really surprising. To be sure, citizen video isn’t a new concept. More than a handful of the 20th century’s most famous footage, from the Rodney King video to the Zapruder film that recorded JFK’s assassination, was filmed by bystanders. Cell phone cameras just make it a lot easier and a lot more common.
The idea of using cell phones as reporting tools isn’t just for amateurs either. Anticipating the relevance of today’s phones, back in October, Reuters Labs showcased a mobile journalism tool kit concept for its reporters. The tech heavy packaged featured a Nokia N95 phone, a folding Bluetooth keyboard, a solar charger, a microphone and a specially outfitted tripod to hold the camera phone. In less than 5lbs, and small enough to fit in a few pockets, it was a total package for filming and transmitting stories from the field.
Part of the logic at Reuters was that today’s phones are light, powerful, and small enough that they may be able to get access where a full camera set up can’t. Case in point, when James Karl Buck, a UC Berkeley grad student, was thrown in a Egyptian jail for photographing a demonstration, they grabbed his camera gear but were less careful with his phone. Buck was able to hastily type a text message that was broadcast over microblogging service Twitter. In a word, he told the world “arrested.” That message helped get him immediate embassy and legal support.
Mobile as Content Platform
On the other side of the spectrum, examples of specially formatted mobile content are almost unnecessary. In some form, virtually every news outlet either has a mobile service, or is considering offering something. Phones are everywhere, and while not suited for all forms of content, they’re an obvious outlet for some.
In a recent example, yesterday, MTV and French Telecom provider SFR reached terms to give customers access to content from all of MTV’s four video channels on their phones. They will also be able to view two exclusively mobile channels. That service will begin April 23rd.
It’s a Revolution
Mobile phones are everywhere and their functionality is expanding. It is, as Martin Cooper called it, a revolution. But Cooper was also quick to point out "Anything that makes the cell phone more complicated makes it less desirable, less useful.” It’s all about finding and keeping the right balance. That’s something major media is aiming for, albeit by a process of trial and error.
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