LAS VEGAS — As the music, film, television, newspaper, book and video-game industries strain to find a way to thrive in the new digital marketplace, one seems to have figured it all out.
It is that trailblazer known as the phone company.
Consumers are using their mobile phones to download tens of millions of games, songs, ring tones and video programs. And they shell out money for these items, even as they resist paying for similar digital goodies online using their computers.
It is a curious equation: pay for stuff on a tiny, low-resolution screen while getting some of the very same games and video free on a fancy widescreen monitor.
At its annual trade show in Las Vegas last week, the phone industry pushed new software stores, video players, games and content. Their efforts are based on a digital twist on Pavlov: The phone rings and we pay.
“There’s been no expectation that anything would be free,” said David Chamberlain, an analyst with In-Stat, a market research firm. “The telcos have been very careful not to give stuff away.”
By contrast, he said, “a lot of people on the Internet are wondering — why did we let all this stuff go for free?”
It may have to do with each industry’s origins. “Information wants to be free” has long been the rallying cry for many Internet pioneers. As the mythology goes, the designers of the Internet envisioned it as utopian and open — two words rarely used to describe the phone experience.
One example of the stark difference between the phone and the computer is the concept of micropayments. Newspapers and other content producers have examined the method — getting people to pay for content with a nickel here and a dime there — as a possible answer to their revenue problems on the Web.
But the phone industry has had a micropayment system for decades. Ever since the local telephone company charged a customer an extra 35 cents to hear a recorded weather forecast, the phone industry has been charging for content.
Couple that pervasive billing culture with the ability of consumers to get what they want, whenever and wherever they want it (playing Tetris while waiting in line at Starbucks, for example) and you have a powerful alchemy. Piper Jaffray, a market research firm, published a report recently saying it expected consumers to spend $13 billion on downloads to their phones in 2012, up from $2.8 billion this year. The report called Apple’s popular iPhone application store “a tipping point in consumer consumption” over phones.
Apple’s payment model strongly resembles that of the phone industry. A consumer enters his credit card data once, and all subsequent downloads are automatically charged to that account.
By making the process convenient, Apple has been able to sell software applications that, accessed through a computer, would be free. LiveStrong’s calorie-counter app, for example, is free online but a version of it costs $2.99 in the iPhone App store.
But to some consumers, paying on the phone feels different, and more reasonable, than paying online. Sabrina Sanchez of Pleasanton, Calif., a mother of two teenage boys has found herself with mounting bills from downloaded navigation tools and games, like a Star Wars game that turns their iPhones into light sabers.
Ms. Sanchez said she finally started setting down rules in February when her 12-year-old racked up $25 in charges in a month.
“I don’t want him to get used to the instant gratification,” she said. “It’s like a slot machine.”
Ms. Sanchez said she and her children were much more likely to buy things like games on the phone than on the computer. “I have not bought a casual game on the Net. The kids have bought a couple, but not like on the phone.”
Content developers say consumers like the instant gratification of downloading on the go. By contrast, PC users have to go through a few more steps to pay for items online because, most of the time, they must enter credit card information for each purchase.
Research shows that the more steps a person must take to pay, the less likely he is to buy something. Besides, people have simply become used to paying for things on the phone.
One paid service on phones is TV shows, sold through services like MobiTV of Emeryville, Calif., which packages television programming for phones. About 5.5 million people in the United States are paying $10 or more for MobiTV from AT&T, Sprint and Alltel. “People can’t carry around a 48-inch plasma TV,” said Ray DeRenzo, senior vice president of MobiTV.
But there are others who question how much longer consumers will be willing to pay for content on the phone.
Paul Jacobs, the chief executive of Qualcomm, which offers a mobile TV service called MediaFlow, said the company expected before long to start offering broadcast channels free while charging only for premium programming, like cable shows.
Despite the success of paid phone applications, there are thousands of free applications available. One company, called GetJar, offers some 20,000 services, including games and productivity software, and has been getting 33 million downloads a month.
Apple has plenty of free applications too; Skype, which lets you make free calls over the Internet was downloaded one million times in the first 48 hours after it was introduced last week.
Still, providers of content for mobile devices remain happy about their ability to get paid. One is Kinoma, a Palo Alto, Calif., company whose $30 browser software lets mobile phone users surf the Web and organize their music, among other things.
Brian Friedkin, the company’s co-founder, said he had sold “many thousands” of downloads — though they are features that are free on a PC.
“It’s tough to say why mobile users are more willing to pay,” he said. “But it’s great for us.”
The bionic body 2.0
- Story Highlights
- Humans who are part-man, part-machine no longer just the stuff of sci-fi
- Scientists working on ways to better integrate devices in living body
- Artificial eyes, mind-controlled limbs examples of new tech being developed
LONDON, England (CNN) -- If Rob Spence achieves his goal, technology will change his view of the world -- literally.
Eyeborg: Documentary filmmaker Rob Spence has created a working prototype of his camera-embedded eye.
Spence, who lost an eye in a childhood accident, is in the process of installing a tiny camera into his prosthetic eye. He announced his plan last year, and now he's a step closer to fulfilling his aim.
"It's been an expensive and laborious process to make this thing. But fortunately we have leveraged the right people and have a working prototype," he says.
A documentary filmmaker based in Toronto, Spence wants to use the wireless camera in his eye to make films and examine where "recorded image and video intersect with humanity." Although, he says, the prototype containing delicate electronics isn't ready for frequent use yet.
Spence, who calls himself the "eyeborg," is the latest example of the convergence of human and machine. No longer restricted to the realm of sci-fi novels and movies, technology is increasingly being integrated into the living body.
Human kind has been using technology to improve the power of their senses since the days of cave men, according to James Geary, author of "The Body Electric: An Anatomy of the New Bionic Senses."
He loosely describes bionics as any device that extends, repairs or enhances natural sensory abilities. For him, that includes everything from cochlear implants that provide deaf people with a sense of sound to the wireless gadgets people use today to talk on their mobile phones hands free.
In recent years, technology has helped create smaller, more power efficient electronic devices. As a result, there has been a "big conceptual shift towards inserting these components inside, instead of outside the body," says Geary.
Spence will not be augmenting his senses in the traditional bionic sense -- his vision won't improve at all because his retina was damaged to the point where he had his eye replaced with a prosthetic.
But a California company, Second Sight, has developed a device that can restore limited vision for some blind people. So far, the company says it has implanted the device in 21 people around the world who have retinal degeneration.
The device, which is still in clinical trials, consists of a camera mounted on a pair of glasses. Captured images are transmitted to electrodes implanted in the retina, which then send images to the brain. The device gives patients the ability to perceive patterns of light, which are then interpreted as images.
Retinal implants, mind-controlled limbs, electrodes inserted in the brain -- they're just a few examples of next-generation technologies that may speed up the integration of body and machine. See photo gallery of bionic devices »
Dr. Miguel Nicolelis is a neuroscientist at Duke University. He has spent the last decade investigating the links between brain activity and devices, an area of research known as brain machine interface.
He hopes developments in the field will lead to the creation of the next generation of mind-controlled limbs. "We hope to restore mobility to those who have lost the ability to send messages to the brain and their muscles," he tells CNN.
Scientists have already shown that monkeys with probes inserted in their brains are able to control artificial devices like robotic arms with their minds. They've found that computer software can interpret signals picked up by the electrodes.
Brain machine interface ultimately could help restore mobility to quadriplegics and others, such as those suffering from spinal cord injuries, says Nicolelis.
He's involved in a global project called Walk-Again that aims to develop a wearable exoskeleton that paralyzed users could control with signals from their brain.
Finding a way to safely insert electrodes and probes into human brains remains an obstacle. But scientists are constantly working on finding ways to better integrate devices in living organisms.
Seamlessly fusing engineered devices into living tissue can be challenging since devices usually are metal, hard and flat, according to David Martin, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Michigan.
"This is where the real interesting scientific frontier is -- implanted devices integrating themselves in the brain, ear, eye and in muscle. The question is whether we can do that and not cause too much cell damage," he says.
The technology being developed is cutting edge and pushing boundaries, but there are potential pitfalls. Since it's still early days, no one knows how bodies will react over the long term to inserted devices.
"We're just really sensitive about anything we put in our bodies," he says. In science fiction, the cyborg is almost always the bad guy. The big barrier is overcoming that fear, he says.