Is FLO TV Dead? Are Standalone Mobile Gadgets Dead, Period?

By  |  Monday, October 4, 2010 at 2:38 pm’s Staci Kramer is reporting that Qualcomm is shutting down the direct-to-consumer version of FLO TV, its mobile TV service that provides a broadcast-like experience on the FLO TV Personal TV gadget, in-car systems, and a handful of smartphones. Judging from the FLO TV site, she’s right: It seems to have been scrubbed of all “where to buy” information except for that pertaining to Verizon and AT&T phones, which remain available for now.

FLO TV was–can we speak of it in the past tense yet?–a classic example of the right product at the wrong time. Judged on its merits, it was quite impressive: It delivered live TV with no hiccups, and Qualcomm lined up an impressive roster of big-name content partners. If it had been around a decade ago, it might have been an iPod-like hit. But in the age of plentiful Internet video on smartphones, it felt pricey and a tad retro. And one neat device that could have made it more appealing to more people–Mophie’s FLO TV jacket for iPhones, which was announced in January at CES–hasn’t shipped, and now presumably never will.

The service also suffered from schizophrenic support from Qualcomm. On one hand, I’ve seen prime-time TV commercials for it within the last week or two. On the other, when I spoke with FLO TV president Bill Stone back in March, he seemed oddly diffident about the whole business, and spoke openly about using the technology and spectrum for purposes other than a consumer TV service.

Oh, and the name FLO TV probably didn’t help: It doesn’t describe the product very clearly. In a best-case scenario, it sounds like it’s an all-Polly Holliday channel.

Even if FLO TV’s timing and marketing had been better, it might have been doomed by forces beyond its control. Today, any gadget that fits in your pocket automatically competes with smartphones–and chances are that smartphones can do something similar, probably at a lower cost or no additional cost at all. Even if a device has advantages that smartphones don’t, such as FLO TV’s robust video and audio quality, convincing large numbers of consumers to buy it in addition to a smartphone is going to be a tough sell. (Handheld satellite radio receivers, which were briefly a hot item a few years ago, suffer from the same challenge.)

Sure, some existing non-smartphone gadgets will stick around–the best pocket-sized point-and-shoot cameras are still much better than any cameraphone, and Apple wouldn’t have released redesigned iPods last month if there wasn’t a big market for them. But can you envision an entirely new type of handheld gizmo being so exciting that it competes successfully with the Swiss Army Knives that our phones have become?

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