Last week during CTIA Wireless 2010, I had a chance to meet with the folks behind Bitbop, a video streaming subscription service for smartphones. My initial thoughts wanted me to brush off the idea since startups such as these always face difficulty finding premium video content. Even ventures such as Joost that hoped to bring IPTV to every computer didn’t fare out so well. In fact, the only major success story that comes to mind is Hulu, but that was only because it was a joint venture between big names such as NBC, Fox, and ABC. However, I soon took a step back and reconsidered when I realized who was actually behind Bitbop: Fox Mobile Group.
I found Chris Hoerenz, the Chief Marketing Office of Fox Mobile Group, representing Bitbop. He filled me in on the fact that Bitbop was actually a product of Fox Mobile Group, a division of News Corp. It turns out that with their influences and industry ties, Bitbop had already secured content from NBC Universal, Discovery, and naturally their own Fox Entertainment Group. Hoerenz also stated that those networks would be the initial content providers, but that more premium content was on its way and would be announced sometime after launch.
So here’s how the service works. With a $9.99 a month subscription to Bitbop’s mobile app, smartphone owners can stream high quality on-demand television and film content over both WiFi and 3G networks. The service will initially support Android, BlackBerry, and iPhone devices. A free version of the mobile app for each platform offers access to short previews and trailers. Paying the subscription fee will unlock access to the full content. After a look through Bitbop’s press release, a launch date still hadn’t been announce, but in my conversation with Hoerenz, I was only told “soon.” As of now, Bitbop’s website only displays a temporary placeholder for early adopters to request invitations to the beta version.
I was lucky enough to have a chance to demo the service on Motorola Droid and BlackBerry smartphone. The interface was actually quite well designed and had essential features such as a queue to lineup your favorite shows for back-to-back viewing. I had a chance to watch about a minute of a recent episode of The Office and the video quality looked phenomenal. I should note that I wasn’t told whether the content was getting delivered on a 3G or WiFi network or if it was a download for offline viewing. I wouldn’t be surprised if the quality differed over a 3G network.
While the entire idea sounds exciting, it’s hard to tell whether customers will be wiling to pay for a monthly fee for a service that only works on smartphones. For instance, the majority of people I know, myself included, resort to Hulu for enjoying television content rather than forking a few bucks to iTunes for a single ad-free episode. For those willing to pay the fee, services such as SlingBox’s Mobile SlingPlayer already offers access to live content and even recorded content on a home DVR. And finally, with Netflix entering the mobile arena launching on Windows Phone 7 Series later this year, a subscription model that ties in with existing services could possibly fare better with customers.
I expressed those concerns to Hoerenz and Joe Bilman, the Executive Vice President at Fox Mobile Group, they both naturally seemed confident and stated that they foresee a successful launch. With the power of Fox to back Bitbop and a very slim number of contenders offering premium video content with subscription-based model in the mobile market, there’s a good chance that Bitbop will find a set of customers and a place for itself.