Live from Boston, Easier TV and Radio on Your Phone

7/30/07Follow @wroush

Time was when telephones were only for talking, radios were for listening, and TVs were for watching. But digitization and the wireless Internet mean that no piece of content stays in its original medium for long. And today a Boston startup is emerging from stealth mode to unveil the latest cross-media technology, a streaming-media service that lets users watch TV shows and listen to podcasts and live radio via their cell phones’ built-in Web browsers.

Buzzwire opened a free beta version of its service to the public at midnight Monday. The service, at http://m.buzzwire.com, offers users thousands of video and audio programs of varying lengths, from the 21-minute NBC Nightly News to a 3-minute news podcast from satire site The Onion. Users can also upload their own audio and video files and share links to their favorites with friends.

Buzzwire’s content can be reached using most 3G phones. But the company says it plans to cut deals as early as this fall that would restrict the service to subscribers of certain wireless carriers. It would then likely place Buzzwire links directly those phones’ browsers, or on the all-important “decks” or home screens—greatly simplifying access to its services.

Streaming-media services for mobile phones aren’t new—in fact they’ve been around long enough, in the form of Verizon’s VCast, MobiTV, and others—that Buzzwire might be considered a second-generation mobile video play. By sending media through a phone’s Web browser, it frees the users from the need to download or operate dedicated media applications. “All other solutions require the consumer to have special, proprietary client software,” says Bijan Sabet, general partner at Spark Capital, one of Buzzwire’s investors. “Buzzwire just works. It knows what type of handset the consumer has, it knows what carrier, it knows which network, and it makes the content just work. That is a big deal, and no one else is making it this simple.”

And Buzzwire offers several other capabilities not found in earlier streaming video services, including social-networking features like the ability to upload and share files and playlists and send recommendations to fellow Buzzwire users.

As part of a preview offered to journalists last week, I test-drove Buzzwire on a Motorola Razr V3m phone using Sprint’s Power Vision data network, and I found that it has another welcome advantage: a reliable video stream free of the hiccups and buffering delays I’ve frequently witnessed on VCast phones. After short initial waits while files downloaded, I was able to listen to a Boston Globe news podcast and an NPR movie review, watch Digg.com’s Diggnation video podcast, and get live streaming radio from WGBH.

Buzzwire’s picture and sound quality are as high as I’ve seen on a mobile phone (but still lousy compared to multimedia streaming on a PC, of course). The company’s biggest challenge might be making its already large content collection accessible to users; the Razr’s tiny screen could show no more than a dozen choices at a time, and could give only a fragment of each file’s title. What I thought would be President Bush’s weekly radio address, for example, turned out to be a not-very-funny parody of the president.

If Buzzwire catches on as a way for information-age workers to fill the interstices of their days with a bit of digital entertainment, or if teens or 20-somethings pick up on Buzzwire as a means of sharing media when they’re not at their computers, it could offer a viable streaming-video strategy to carriers such as AT&T and Sprint-Nextel that don’t have offerings to compete with Verizon’s VCast.

Backing for Buzzwire, which also has offices in Denver, CO, comes from Spark and its fellow Boston venture capital firm Matrix Partners (funding terms have not been disclosed). Matrix isn’t known for funding Web 2.0 technologies or content-distribution companies. But most of Buzzwire’s core team, including CEO Andrew Macfarlane and chairman David Hose, came from Openwave Systems, which is one of Matrix’s portfolio companies.

Spark Capital, on the other hand, invests almost exclusively in companies that straddle the lines between media, entertainment, and technology (see our recent talk with Spark general partner Todd Dagres). Spark was an investor in thePlatform, a digital media management system that provided the infrastructure for Verizon’s Vcast service. “We had a front row seat [for thePlatform] and saw how much consumers want video and audio on mobile,” says Sabet. “[But] current solutions package up content and limit choice. We don’t think that is going to win over time.” Buzzwire, by contrast, lets users pick and choose which media they want to view on their phone, including files generated by other users.

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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  • johnson

    It is pretty slow to load a web based application and switch among links, and you have to cross your finger if you only use the player comes with the browser or the device. It is actually pretty good to have the users download your app because then your app can use the device’s database or file system to cache lots of stuff and don’t have to download them again every time. Also, a downloaded app have lots of control over the video player and can fine tune the video quality.