The Fourth Screen Flickers into Life in Europe

I’ve been using a Nokia N96 over the last few weeks and although I’m disappointed by the phone overall, I’m hugely impressed by its video and TV capabilities.

Manufacturers and network operators have long championed watching TV and video on mobile phones as the Next Big Thing, hyping mobiles as the “fourth screen” alongside cinema, TV and the PC. So far, “TV on mobile” hasn’t really captured people’s imagination — and rightly so, given the poor quality and high cost. Its supporters have cited Japan and South Korea as reference markets, but I think there are big cultural differences that make such comparisons largely irrelevant.

That said, I’ve noticed that my colleague, Paolo, has been writing more and more about mobile TV and mobile video initiatives in Europe. There’s a wide variety of delivery mechanisms, ranging from downloadable clips and streamed video to broadcasts using technology such as DVB-H in places like Italy, Finland and the Netherlands.

More people are aware of video on the move, thanks partly to Apple’s iPhone and, more recently, the N96. I’ve certainly noticed a small but growing number of people on public transport watching their mobile devices rather than listening to them or talking into them. The iPhone and iPod touch seem to be the most popular choices, perhaps because Apple makes it pretty easy to download and transfer videos onto its devices.

The N96 is one of the best-selling contract phones in many European markets, even though it has few differences from the highly successful N95. I can only attribute its success to the clever way in which Nokia has marketed it a mobile TV and video player. The simple and inexpensive addition of a “kick-stand” on the back of phone so you can prop it up and watch it was an inspired move by Nokia. The stand immediately indicates to users that the N96 is a product meant for video.

In the UK, Nokia has gone a step further, cleverly tying up with the BBC to implement its iPlayer on the N96. The advertising associated with this has emphasized the iPlayer feature so strongly that on occasions I’ve wondered whether it’s promoting the BBC and its much-loved “Top Gear” programme or a Nokia phone. It’s definitely raised awareness among users that they can watch TV programmes on a mobile phone. This can only be good news for the promoters of mobile TV, who must have felt they’ve been pushing water uphill for the last decade.