In my last post, I wrote about Nielsen’s “Three Screens Report”, a quarterly publication that provides statistics about America’s video viewing habits on the three screens of television, computer (internet), and mobile device.  In that post, I highlighted the fact that the number of Americans who are now watching video on their mobile phones is higher than ever – and growing at a rate of 70% year-over-year.

However, there was another part of that report that I think deserves some attention.  According to Nielsen, a vast majority of the video content being viewed on computers is “short-form” video - YouTube clips being the standard example.  However, most of the content viewed on mobile devices is professionally-produced material, particularly network television shows.

Why the difference in viewing habits?  Well, a primary reason is easy access to the content.  In the United States, the large wireless carriers often provide subscription plans that include the ability to view network television shows.  My service provider in New Jersey is Verizon Wireless, and as part of my subscription, I can watch NBC’s “The Office” and ESPN’s “SportsCenter” just by clicking on a menu selection on my phone.  Watching videos from YouTube on my phone can be much more difficult due to carrier restrictions and capabilities of mobile devices.  In the future, I expect that more people will be watching this user-generated “over the top” video content on their phones, but I think professionally-produced content will continue to be a key component of our mobile video viewing for quite a while.  (Readers interested in this topic can find more discussion here.)

The reason that I want to draw attention to this trend is that it supports my belief that video quality is going to be an important source of differentiation among wireless service providers.  This may sound like a trivial assertion, but it is not.  Consider the voice world – there is plenty of evidence to show that consumers value the convenience of mobile communications over the quality of the connection.  It is true that wireless carriers are taking plenty of steps to improve voice quality, but we still live in a time when carriers try to highlight their service with lines like, “Can you hear me now?” or claims of lower rates of dropped calls.  Imagine if an incumbent landline carrier had to make such claims!

So if consumers of wireless services are willing to sacrifice quality for convenience in the voice world, why should quality be more important in the video world?  I think there are several reasons.  First, I believe consumers have higher expectations when they watch professionally-produced content (as they are on mobile devices).  I think this is analogous to the situation with mobile voice – consumers are much more likely to accept a lower level of quality when they are chatting with friends than when they are making a business call.  Second, the biology of the ear is more forgiving to low quality than the biology of the eye.  During a voice call, some loss in the voice signal can often be acceptable, as the listener can compensate based on the context of the conversation.  In video communication, a small degradation in quality is much more noticeable – the eye will pick up blockiness or blurriness even if it is caused by relatively minor packet loss.  Finally, mobile devices are moving to larger screen sizes; as the screens become larger it is increasingly important for the carrier to provide a high-quality video experience.

We are seeing a growing industry focus related to the quality of mobile video: leading companies are joining together in consortia focused on improving video quality, standards bodies are defining quantitative measures related to video, and enterprises are beginning to insist on quality measurements as part of the Service Level Agreements that they are negotiating with carriers.  In a future posting, I’ll take this discussion a bit deeper, focusing on the types of measurements that may become more relevant as wireless carriers take steps to increase the quality of viewing experience that they provide to their customers.