09 September 2009

MEF Americas Mobile Leadership Summit - Part 1

This is part 1 of 4 in a series that looks at the recent MEF Americas Mobile Leadership Summit, which took place on Tuesday 1 September 2009 at the Writer's Guild of America West headquarters in Los Angeles. You can also read parts 2, 3 and 4.

The Mobile Entertainment Forum held its Mobile Leadership Summit Tuesday at the Writer's Guild of America West headquarters in Los Angeles. I presume the event met the organizers' expectations, at least in terms of attendence, because virtually every seat was full in a crowded room. The format of the event was 2 keynotes (one philisophical, one analytical) and 2 panel discussions.

MEF Americas Chair Jim Beddows kicked off the event with a story about his introduction to mobile 10 years ago while working on console gaming deals for Disney in Japan. At one point he was approached by an operator who wanted the company’s content for mobile devices, which left him wondering how Disney could ever make money doing that (clearly they figured it out). Jump to Helsinki in 2005, while at Microsoft, he found the pervasive mood very negative about mobile and the slogan du jour was “WAP is crap.” In spite of this, 18mos later he launched MSN Mobile and it exceeded everyone's expectations. Beddows claims to have been alternately confounded, excited, disappointed and surprised by the mobile entertainment space (as have we all). So, he started the conversation of the day… what's working, what's not? How is the value chain evolving?

Sam Sarkar, a senior executive for Johnny Depp's production company Infinitum Nihil, delivered the first keynote...which helped put the rollercoaster ride the industry has been on over the last 10 years into some perspective. His thesis was that fits and starts are inherent to emerging businesses. Furthermore, in the development of every medium the technology precedes the business model that makes it viable and the artistry that comes to define it.

Sarkar suggested that television didn't really begin to realize its artistic potential until the late 60s or early 70s, despite having public debuted in the late 1920s. He told an interesting story about how television’s inventor, Philo Farnsworth, was so frustrated by the vacuousness of the medium that he wouldn't permit the device in his home. It wasn't until the broadcast of the moon landing that he was able to concede that it was worthwhile invention.

Even on the internet, which has been a consumer phenomenon for almost 15 years, we've only begun to see traces of its potential as an entertainment medium with stuff like Will Ferrell's "The Landlord" for FunnyorDie.com and LonelyGirl15 on YouTube (which ended up being professionally produced). But these are one-offs and lots of companies have failed trying to recreate their success.

In mobile, the potential of the medium was first teased with the ringtone (a legit consumer phenomenon) and now again with the App Store...but these are still early stages of what Sarkar characterized as Alien (as in the movie) Evolution...I'm still trying to fully decifer this amusing analogy, but I think the gist is that it’s going to be a sometimes painful path, full of surprises, but ultimately the monster potential will be revealed. Sarkar reminded the group that the record companies didn’t invent Rock N’Roll…artists did, and similarly, he believes, artists will define the mobile medium.

Sarkar demonstrated several experimental iPhone Apps from a developer in Singapore, including a photo essay of life in the Swat Valley featuring the work photo journalist Kevin Coombs, a mobile manga version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and text-based Asian ghost stories augmented with photos and sound.

In conclusion he asked to audience to think about how to commercially make old stories new again in the medium and to imagine the new ideas and stories that will come to it and from it.

Read Part 2 in the series >>

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