Mobile TV choices shrinking as much as they're growing

My friend Dave Zatz wrote in his incredibly informative ZatzNotFunny tech blog that the ambitious FLO TV hardware and service combo is shutting down in March. The handheld "personal TV" product, developed by Qualcomm, was designed to offer a variety of programming straight to your handheld via their paid service; different models included one designed for mounting in cars.

Not only is the service shutting down on March 27th, 2011, the company is offering a generous rebate program that might return as much as the full retail price you paid for the hardware. (They don't want the hardware back, though there's a limit to what you can do with it once the service ends.)

What now? Dave suspects, as do I, that users are increasingly turning to TV-viewing functionality available on the devices they already have, whether it's an iPhone or other smartphone, iPad or other tablet, and so on. When you can stream lots of movies and TV shows thanks to Netflix and Hulu, watch plenty of web videos from Comedy Central and other networks, stream whatever's on your TV using your Slingbox, or just carry your own video library with you, the value of a dedicated TV-watching gizmo with limited programming is itself pretty limited.

There used to be portable televisions that could pick up any over-the-air channel; the smallest were popular at ballgames. One side effect of the transition to digital broadcast television signals, though, is that all of those portable TVs stopped working when their analog broadcasts went away. Broadcasters have a mobile DTV specification available to them, but they need separate equipment to generate it, so most aren't bothering. Until they do, most consumers won't consider buying the handful of very-expensive mobile DTV sets. It's a circular problem.

DirecTV is optimistic; they figure their satellite TV subscribers want to take their service on the road with them. But their Sat-Go Portable Satellite TV is more realistically "luggable." Sporting a 17-inch screen, it "takes up less trunk space than your average suitcase," hardly a good sign for portable tech, and needs a clear view of the southern sky for its built-in antenna. This will probably make sense only for the most diehard of RV campers.

Even DirecTV doesn't think their 17-inch behemoth is what you want for watching TV on the go. Dave adds that they're offering NFL Sunday Ticket To-Go to existing subscribers, $50 for the season to watch NFL football games on a Mac or Windows computer, or any of several portable devices including the Apple iPad. Much better.