Switched On: The TV is personal again

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

The short history of digital content includes several examples of on-the-go services like Audible and Slacker that were started out on own devices before expanding to others, But FLO TV, which started its service on handsets from Verizon and then AT&T, has gone the other way. After being stalled by the digital TV transition delay that held up spectrum it needed to launch and expand service in several markets, FLO TV has launched a dedicated $250 device, the HTC-branded Personal Television, even as it seeks to expand the number of handsets supporting its receiver.

Like a Kindle, iPod nano, or Flip camcorder, the pocketable Personal TV has a straightforward, optimized purpose. And for technophiles who live in a world of Hulu, TV-on-DVDs and Apple TV, it recalls a simpler time when TV content and device were an integrated pair. Turn on the device, press a GPS-style safety disclaimer, and you're watching TV. Apart from power and volume/mute controls, it has only a single front-mounted button brings up the electronic programming guide, which can be navigated by touching and swiping its 3.5-inch touchscreen. A laptop battery-style power status button lights up a series of LEDs to let you know how much charge is left in the device.

But in an age when iTunes and other services allow one to download just the shows they want for a small fee, not all of Personal TV's limitations are so charming. Like other wireless products, it won't work on underground trains or planes, and there's no way to record video, or even perform tricks less objectionable to copyright holders such as pause or instant replay. Fortunately, the Personal TV's screen is quite watchable outdoors. And, unlike the analog portable TVs of yore and the digital portable TVs that will come to market in 2010, FLO TV is a subscription service. The company includes six months of free service with the device, but then it is $15 per month, the same rate that AT&T charges for the service on its handsets that support it. And unlike in shows downloaded from iTunes, there are plenty of commercials.

But for the price, you get access to a significant selection of programming that would require a pay TV subscription at home, including Fox News Channel, CNBC, MSNBC, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, ESPN, MTV, and Comedy Central. FLO TV also programs a channel with a range of seasonal programming and specials. And while there is no recording capability, FLO TV offers the next best thing, which is time-shifted

programming; watching during the day will enable you to catch up on some primetime and late-night programming instead of being confined to the latest output from the Oprah factory or the judge du jour show.

FLO TV's service quality has benefitted greatly from the spectrum capacity to which it now has access, but it still sometimes stutters and pixelates. It seems particularly vulnerable when the channel guide is invoked or it is moved. But overall the quality, convenience and breadth of FLO TV's content make the Personal TV a contender for those who want a simple way to be casually entertained on the go and would trade the exactness of selecting the shows they want for the expedience of having about a dozen broadcast and popular cable channels on tap. And for for now it's one of the few mobile options for delivering live video of news and sports.

For a dedicated device, Personal TV's unique combination of time-shifted and premium programming addresses a void at a time when free over-the-air broadcast is in transition between now obsolete portable analog TVs from Sony and Casio and a new generation of mobile digital televisions based on the mobile ATSC standard that should launch next year. Both that standard and FLO TV also have a bevy of screens to target beyond cell phones, including notebook PCs, portable DVD players, digital media players and rear-seat in-vehicle systems. For now, though, Personal TV provides a simple, programmed experience for those willing to shoulder what will often be a second TV subscription.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.