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Phoning It In: Software Turns Mobile Phone into Personal Newscam

Qik's latest software delivers live, streaming video--but Congress doesn't want the technology in its House



Courtesy of iStockphoto; Copyright: Miodrag Gajic

A lawmaker streams live video with the first images from the Mars Phoenix lander, a technophile shares his experiences with his new iPhone 3G, and a dog owner shows off his canine comrade's repertoire of tricks (clearly without the benefit of rehearsal). Welcome to the world of "qikking," where mobile phone users spontaneously capture video and send it to the Internet where, unlike YouTube, the action can be viewed live.

This ability to turn one's mobile phone into a personal newscam is courtesy of Qik, Inc., a Foster City, Calif., start-up whose software has since late last year let people create live, mobile video streaming, including images and sound. The average Qik video is between two and five minutes long. These videos are stored on the company's computer servers and available via the Qik Web site, blogging sites such as Twitter and Pownce, video sharing sites such as YouTube and WorldTV, live blogging services such as CoverItLive and location-based social networks such as ipoki. With the release of the latest version of Qik today, videos can also be viewed via social networking sites Facebook, MySpace and Orkut. The videos can be shared publicly or with a select few.

Even Congress is hip to the budding technology, which Rep. John Culberson (R–Tex.) used to broadcast live interviews with fellow GOP congressmen, Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Mac Thornberry (Tex.), who spoke with Culberson live shortly after the House passed the controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) expanding warrantless wiretapping by the government. Culberson also streamed video from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory control room in Pasadena, Calif., in late May as the space center received the Phoenix lander's first images of the Red Planet.

But not everyone is onboard. Turns out that House rules bar legislators from posting video on any site with commercial or political advertising, and from using taxpayer dollars to show content anyplace other than on the chamber's official site, House.gov domain. Translation: Culberson's videos are banned on Facebook, MySpace or any other site supported by advertising. "My qikking and twittering are illegal," he says, "but I'm not stopping."

Culberson, who has used Twitter to blog from the House floor, is taking advantage of the House's lax enforcement of its rules as legislators figure out how to regulate the use of this new technology. "I'm working to change the rules so that members of Congress have the same access to new media as they have to old media," Culberson says, noting the he sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) on July 11 suggesting the rules change but has yet to hear back from her.

This debate comes at a pivotal time for Qik, whose new software supports a larger selection of mobile phones (more than 30)—in particular Nokia, Samsung and Motorola phones that use either the Symbian or Windows Mobile Smart phone operating systems. Qik is planning to support Apple's iPhone, but the company is still in the early stages of developing software that would work with the original or the new iPhone 3G.

Qik's software can send video across all major cell phone networks, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. The service is, of course, only as good as the network over which it sends the videos, so streaming video is not possible when one's smart phone is not receiving a signal. However, if someone starts streaming a video and loses the cell signal, Qik will resume sending the video automatically once the link is reestablished.

Streaming videos cannot be viewed via mobile phones, but the company plans to add this capability. "Our goal is to stream video to any connected device," says company co-founder Bhaskar Roy, adding that this will also include video game consoles that connect to the Internet.

One of Qik's greatest assets, says Carla Thompson, a senior analyst with San Francisco–based Guidewire Group, a research firm that identifies and analyzes emerging information technology markets and start-ups, is the software's ability to quickly deliver video and text (a user can send SMS, or standard data transmission protocol, text messages along with their video streams), creating a tool that could be very useful to the emerging population of citizen journalists. "I can see Qik seeping into the mainstream because of its ability to immediately convey thoughts and images," she says, "more than just text or a digital photo can."

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