By Aaron Greenwood
Qatar-based Al Jazeera Network is fast developing a reputation for not only developing advanced mobile media services but also leveraging the technology in breaking news environments. Aaron Greenwood caught up with three senior executives charged with shaping the broadcaster's new media fortunes.
Qatar-based Al Jazeera Network is fast developing a reputation for not only developing advanced mobile media services but also leveraging the technology in breaking news environments. Aaron Greenwood caught up with three senior executives charged with shaping the broadcaster's new media fortunes.Al Jazeera has fast developed a reputation for developing leading-edge mobile TV services. Was it difficult to encourage the organization to embrace the shift when these services were first conceived?
Messaoui:We've been developing our mobile TV service for the past two to three years. We believe the future of news lies in mobile and that cellular networks will provide the access point to this big cloud of content, which users will be able to access on-demand.
We create and produce content that must be available for access from any mobile device.
Users also need to be provided the ability to interact with this content. Mobile TV viewers are unique in the sense that they're generally early adopters who are hugely enthusiastic about interacting with the content.
You recently launched a new mobile TV service in conjunction with Mobiclip. How was this service conceived?
Mustafa:We have video-on-demand services designed for various levels of handset sophistication. We appreciate that the technology is far more sophisticated these days than what it was even two to three years ago, and the possibilities are far greater in terms of sophisticated delivery approaches.
We're not a technology company, so we partner with key specialists in this area. For live streaming on the iPhone platform we've partnered with LiveStation. Mobiclip, which is an expert at the chipset level, has supported our rollout of services for Symbian and Windows Mobile platforms.
The service is available worldwide, except in some countries which have certain restrictions. For example, in Malaysia Mobiclip is not included. As Al Jazeera, our intention is to be available in as many markets as possible worldwide.
What kinds of services are available to mobile TV subscribers?
Mustafa:The Al Jazeera mobile interface provides users with three options: Al Jazeera English or Arabic live streaming services, as well as video-on-demand, which includes news bulletins produced four times a day for English-language subscribers.
We've redesigned the traditional television interface for mobile viewing screens, so there are features like a bigger and more legible news ticker.
We're also looking to develop content specifically for mobile distribution.
Al Jazeera is also developing a reputation for its journalists putting mobile handsets to good use in the field...
Mustafa:We're the only news broadcaster in the region to be using mobile video uploads on such a large scale.
We've deployed an Al Jazeera reports application, which allows journalists to send video reports direct to the broadcast playout centre. We recommend a high-end handset equipped with a decent camera. The software provides the journos with a number of very useful features, including geotagging the footage, and even some basic in-phone editing.
We've managed to report on developing situations on the ground which wouldn't have been possible with more traditional forms of technology.
For example, we recently had a situation where one of our photo-journos, who was very famous for the footage he shot in Fallujah during the Iraq War, was visiting Chad. While he was there, he witnessed a car bomb explode and he instantly recorded the video to his phone, and because he was close to the hotel, he could access the Wi-Fi connection. The video was broadcast live on Al Jazeera Arabic literally within minutes of the explosion occurring.
But isn't it challenging sourcing network resources in some of these countries?
Mustafa:Wi-Fi and 3G services are available in many more locations than most people realise, which makes the platform ideal for breaking news scenarios. It also opens up many more possibilities for us in terms of the applications we can develop for our journalists.
Ahmad:Part of our role is evangelising these technologies in the newsroom and convincing the journalists of their benefits in the field.
What sort of value-add opportunities do you think mobile apps offer news organisations such as Al Jazeera?
Ahmad:Mobile footage is perfectly suited to online distribution. Since most handsets are also now equipped with GPS applications, we're encouraging our journos to log their locations with each report so we can map them online using Google Maps. This works brilliantly for reporters working in remote locations and it really adds depth to the coverage itself.
Messaoui:The footage is also uploaded to our YouTube channel, which increases the circulation of each report. Given the largely unreliable nature of mobile networks in this part of the world, have you built much latency into your mobile upload service?
Mustafa:We have built a certain amount of redundancy into it to guard against weak or unstable connections. If a signal drops out mid-upload for example, it will continue on once the connection is re-established.
Messaoui:Most of the news hotspots, particularly in Africa, suffer from poor connectivity. But that has to be taken into consideration when developing an application such as this, to ensure it's as easy to use as possible. In conflict areas such as warzones, the technology must be easy to use.
Mustafa:When the conflict in Gaza was happening earlier this year most of the mobile telecoms networks were destroyed. Yet, we were receiving video footage from viewers via sites like YouTube.
Do you think mobile handset video uploads can ultimately complement or even rival satellite newsgathering systems?
Ahmad:Absolutely. Even before we began implementing this system, I spoke to our engineers and the cost comparison between mobile and DSNG uploads was staggering. Even when roaming, mobile uploads via telecoms networks is the far cheaper method.
Mustafa:If you look at how satellite phone video footage has evolved, video from a mobile handset is probably now where satellite was 10 years ago, which is incredible, given the latter basically relies on cheap consumer hardware. Cameras are improving, mobiles are improving and so is the network coverage.
Ahmad:In terms of store-and-forward technology, we're almost there. Give it another year, and the quality will be more than acceptable for broadcast and online distribution.
Messaoui:Absolutely. From a cost perspective, we definitely see the quality of BGAN systems improving. If you require a decent image, you are still going to have to cover the cost of establishing a satellite uplink. So we view mobile uploads as complementary to the mainstream technologies rather than a replacement.
However, hopefully soon network speeds will improve substanstially.
How has the internet changed the way broadcast organisations approach news reporting?
Mustafa:As a broadcast media organisation we have to think a little bit outside the box. As Moeed mentioned, the web creates unrivalled opportunities to approach news reporting from completely new perspectives.
We conducted a trial during the South African elections in 2008, where we had crews filming on the street, and we used a mobile phone to shoot behind-the-scenes footage of the crew in action, which was put up on the web.
We trialled a similar initiative in Pakistan during the recent conflict in Swat Valley, whereby the journo in question used their mobile to shoot and upload still images of the fighting to the web.
Al Jazeera is perceived as less commercially oriented than rivals such as CNN. Is commercialising these types of services amajor priority at the moment?
Messaoui:The primary concern of Al Jazeera is expanding its reach globally. But in saying that, in certain markets we have launched premium services which users have to pay for.
Mustafa:Our aim is to make the mobile services as accessible as possible. However, in some areas where network streaming costs are prohibitive, we will charge a small fee to recoup the cost of providing these services.
If you look at the mobile website we don't charge for that but there are advertising applications built-in.
What are the biggest markets for your mobile services in terms of audience numbers?
Mustafa:The United States is our biggest market by far. In fact, it's twice as large in terms of audience numbers compared with our second largest market, which is Africa.
Messaoui:The popularity of the mobile TV service in the US is mirrored by the popularity of Al Jazeera English among Americans.
Ahmad:Our web content is also popular in the US.
Do you think that's because carriage deals are hard to establish in the US?
Ahmad:Possibly. But in saying that, the US has always provided the highest traffic figures for our English-language website. It's probably more likely a case that internet penetration in the US is massive compared to some of our other markets.
Messaoui:I think it's also the content we provide. There is definitely a place for Al Jazeera content in the US because we present the news from a different angle to what the American public is arguably used to.
Do you think that we'll ever get to the point whereby mobile- and online-based services will replace traditional linear news broadcasting?
Mustafa:I can definitely envisage a day when an Android phone will allow you to interact with a live stream or access other live footage or broadcasts. When that day comes we want to be ready and have the metadata prepared to provide these types of services.
Ahmad:Ideally, we want to create a news community, whereby our viewers and users play an integral role in stimulating content creation and ongoing debate about existing content. From the technology perspective, there are many barriers to achieving this.
Mustafa:You see glimpses of this already though. When journalists were expelled from Iran during the most recent elections, the vast majority of footage that came out of the country was shot by civilians using camera phones. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube proved vital in this scenario, and as a news organisation looking forward you definitely can't exclude them.
Messaoui:Children who were born in the last 10 years have different perspectives on technology and the way it impacts daily life. Communications technology is transforming society at a remarkable pace and I believe we are at the tip of the iceberg in terms of how social media and platforms will impact the way we report and distribute the news to future generations.
Mustafa:I agree entirely. The younger generation perceives news differently to the rest of us. They want news to come to them - they don't want to have to go looking for it.
Messaoui:I don't believe many news broadcasters recognise the extent of the challenges that lie before them. As an organisation, we're working towards developing solutions. But we really have to reconsider the ways we deliver news. Broadcast manufacturers must also be aware of these issues.