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One Small Asterisk, One Leap For Digital Media

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Here’s one of those moments when you realize how quickly media is changing: when registering with a content-sharing community, an email address is optional, but a mobile phone number is required.

That’s what I found when signing up for Zannel. Not long ago, such sites wouldn’t even ask for your mobile number, but now it’s all they need. All that changed here was the position of an asterisk, but it signified something much bigger. Mobile phones, which a couple years ago seemed ill-suited for anything but talking (and many couldn’t do that particularly well), are becoming the default content production and distribution devices for millions of consumers.

Mobile phones still have a number of disadvantages. Connection speeds are slow with the mobile Web. Unlimited data plans are often prohibitively expensive. The resolution of multimedia captured on a $500 phone will be much lower quality than what’s taken with a $200 camera (Exhibit A: my grainy blog post from Digital Hollywood this month, captured from my Samsung i760). Phones currently have few ways to edit photos; if you’re not using an iPhone, even rotating a picture 90 degrees can be burdensome. More sophisticated edits, like all the photo fixes Google’s Picasa provides in a single click of its “I’m feeling lucky” button in its downloadable PC software, are rarely available.


None of those hurdles are insurmountable. Do you remember the first time you took or viewed a digital photo? I do. My dad got a Sony Mavica in the late 1990s that stored photos on 3.5″ disks. Instead of taking pictures of the house or the family, I took a series of photos of schwag my dad got from a gastroenterology conference, which I turned into one of my first PowerPoint presentations, “The Adventures of EneMan” (he still shares it with his fellows). The photos were barely a fraction of the quality of print photos, and it will take you less time to read this column than the wait between shots on the Mavica, but those inferior products had infinite possibilities. It took a few more years before I gave up on film altogether — I think my last sets of negatives are from 9/11 and a trip two months later to San Francisco — but the death of film was imminent.

Mobile media is undergoing a similar transition. Why are early adopters sacrificing quality and using Zannel, along with related services like Kyte and Qik and mobile extensions of Flickr, WordPress, TypePad, and Facebook’s photo sharing? Here are four reasons:

Immediacy: Some of these services can stream live video from the phone. A photo can go up on a blog within seconds of snapping it. Friends following you on Zannel can see your photos instantly on their own phones. See something — or even think of it — and you can share it instantly. That’s not always a plus, as more poor-quality content gets produced. By the same reasoning, however, the printing press allowed more awful books to come out, yet I’d wager few readers would want to turn the clock back to the pre-press days of 1438.

Efficiency: With mobile media-sharing, there’s no shifting memory cards around, looking for cables, or switching devices (though one can record multimedia on other devices like digital cameras and Flip video cameras and share them later). One pocket-sized, Web-enabled device can record and share text, speech, music, images, and video.

Portability: “Always on” used to refer to broadband access, but now it’s even more applicable for devices that are always on you and always online. When’s the last time your phone was out of arm’s reach?

Access: It’s a matter of time before just about all phones have some degree of mobile Web access. That’s not even required, though. Zannel, for instance, works perfectly well with a camera phone and MMS (multimedia messaging service).

All four of these factors have at least surpassed the “good enough” threshold, and the technology is often staying ahead of what consumers want to do with it. If you want to create any kind of content on your phone and share it with any site or group of contacts, there’s a way to do it, and the features get richer by the day.
One can rightfully grow skeptical of the hype of convergence. For years, people have owned camera phones but only shared pictures taken on digital cameras. Now, the camera phones benefit from higher MMS and mobile Web penetration and new applications that tie it all together.

And to think, all of that’s summed up in one slight shift of an asterisk.

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