Phones Go Video

Movies: The ability to shoot and send short moving-picture clips is a feature coming soon to a mobile phone near you.

July 01, 2004|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

"In the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes," goes the legendary quote from 1960s artist and self-promoter Andy Warhol.

We're now living in the future, and it seems everybody will indeed get to be on camera for 15 seconds, if not 15 minutes, thanks to a new generation of mobile phones that shoot short video clips in addition to snapping still pictures.

By year-end, the five biggest wireless carriers - AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless - will all offer video recording and messaging.

Yes, this is scary in a way. We're just figuring out that tiny phones can snap unwelcome pictures in locker rooms, and suddenly we've also got to also worry about being surreptitiously captured in full-motion video and sound.

I've just finished testing what Sprint PCS calls "video mail" with a Samsung VM-A680 phone and I'm going to deliver a split decision.

On the one hand, the quality of current mobile phone video is terrible. Motion is jerky and blurry, colors are faded and the image is tiny. Sprint PCS also charges too much - $5 a month - for the privilege of transmitting the video clips.

On the other hand, making short videos is a hoot, despite the privacy risks. I shot an 11-second masterpiece of my 3-year-old daughter Sara, who's just starting to remember entire songs, finishing up "Row, Row Your Boat" with the line, Life is but a stream.

Either way, whatever I think probably doesn't matter much. Any mobile phone with a still camera can be redesigned to also shoot video, just by adding a little bit more software, processing power and memory. And almost all mobile phones are likely to have cameras within a year or two.

Wireless carriers also are eager to find new ways to make money beyond voice calls, so you can expect them to push video messaging.

In the United States, video messaging got started in March 2003 with T-Mobile (www.t- mobile.com). The company now offers two phones capable of shooting 10-second video clips: the Nokia 3660 at $149 and the Nokia 6600 at $299, both prices requiring a one-year contract. For $2.99 a month, subscribers can send 20 video messages a month by e-mail or to other T-Mobile customers who have phones capable of playing video. Additional messages are 10 cents each. Subscribers can also send messages for 25 cents each with no upfront monthly fee.

Sprint PCS (www.sprintpcs. com) came next in December and now offers three video models: the Sanyo VM4500 at $199, the Toshiba VM4050 at $179 and the Samsung VM-A680 at $149, all prices with a two-year contract. To send video clips, which can't exceed 15 seconds, requires subscribing to the Sprint PCS Vision wireless Internet service for $15 a month and paying an additional $5 a month for unlimited video mail.

AT&T Wireless (www.attwire less.com), which has agreed to be acquired by Cingular Wireless later this year, is quietly offering video recording on one model: the Nokia 6820 at $199 with a two-year contract. Sending video clips, which can be as long as 60 seconds, costs 40 cents per message.

Oddly, AT&T doesn't mention video messaging on its Web site or in any of its sales literature. You apparently have to discover on your own that you can send video messages in the same way as still picture messages.

Verizon Wireless (www.vzw. com) and Cingular Wireless (www. cingular.com) both say they will offer video messaging no later than fall.

Because few people have phones capable of playing video clips, the most obvious way to share what you shoot - other than having everyone cluster around a tiny cell-phone screen - is through electronic mail.

In my test with Sprint PCS, uploading a 15-second video clip to send as e-mail took from 20 seconds to 40 seconds. Messages I sent to myself arrived in my e-mail inbox almost instantly.

The e-mail showed a still frame from the clip and invited me to click a "Play Video" link. Clicking the link opened a pop-up window, and the clip played inside a tiny window within the pop-up.

There's also an option to download the clip to your computer. For reasons I don't understand, the downloads are "zipped," so you have take the extra step of unzipping them. What you get are files in the ".mov" format used by Apple's free QuickTime player (www. apple.com/quicktime/down load). Clips running the full 15 seconds are just under 300 kilobytes in size, small enough to easily share.

As I said, the video quality is minimal. Any fast action dissolves into a blur, and colors look washed out. But the audio in my clips was strong and mostly in sync with the video. The Samsung VM-A680 even includes a movie light for illuminating dark scenes, although it's so weak as to be almost useless.

A Samsung representative couldn't tell me exactly how much video the phone would hold. It has 3 megabytes of internal memory; if all of that is devoted entirely to video, that might hold between a dozen and two dozen clips.

Video-messaging pictures should improve in the next few years. Camera phones will get more resolution, so playback will look better on computers, and phones could also get tiny internal hard drives to store at least several hours of video. High-speed wireless data networks will make it practical to share bigger video clips.

For now, I'd only recommend trying mobile phone video if you start with diminished expectations. If you're not looking for high quality, you're less likely to be disappointed.

I also think it's unlikely most people would use the feature enough to justify Sprint's insistence on collecting $5 a month. The pay-per-message approach at T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless seems much more consumer-friendly.

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