Tapioca Gets the Message—and the Video—to Mobile Phone Masses

Tapioca Mobile wants to see your cellular phone play more videos, and the San Diego-based wireless media company has the know-how to do it—no matter what phone you use. Tapioca has created a unique video-transcoding process and has, according to co-founder and CTO Chas Wurster, “the largest footprint of addressable video mobile devices in the U.S. We can get video into the hands of more consumers than anybody else.”

Tapioca is helping users gain access to video in a couple of different ways, by using multimedia messaging (MMS) or text messaging (SMS). Its customers include Univision, NBC, FOX-TV stations, and Border Media, a chain of radio stations previously known as BMP. These customers send video or audio clips of weather reports, news reports, and special messages to Tapioca, which uses its technology to distribute the clips to cell phone users who have signed up to get the broadcasters’ content.

Mass messaging is a technology and market that still has plenty of room to boom, as more video-capable devices come to market and prices come down. But any company attempting to provide such a service faces a daunting technical challenge: it’s not possible to use a single technology to transmit video that can be received by the multitude of cell phones.

For example, when Tapioca gets a video clip from Univision, the Spanish language network, the company processes the video so that it can be used with different messaging technologies. So video of a breaking news event can be sent to Univision’s subscriber base as an MMS message with the video clip or as an SMS message with a link that can be opened using the phone’s net browser. Different phones, bandwidths, carriers, transcoding, and video standards make this a complicated task. “We detect what handset is on the other end and send the appropriate message to the appropriate handset. But handsets are really fragmented, compared to PCs. You have to worry about what file type is supported, what video codec and audio types are needed, what screen resolutions are involved, how big a file you can send, the correct protocols, and so on. It’s not brain surgery, but it’s a challenging problem. We take care of that,” says Wurster.

Tapioca’s job is to ensure that each individual gets the best possible video experience according to his or her phone’s capabilities—and that takes a lot of innovative engineering. It pays, because video messaging is a powerful way to communicate.

Tapioca Mobile CEO and co-founder Sachin Deshpande was previously the head of Qualcomm’s BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) applications platform developer relations. Co-founder and CTO Chas Wurster formerly co-founded Tourmaline Networks, which was sold to Intellisync and later acquired by Nokia. They saw the rise of messaging opportunities and founded Tapioca Mobile in 2007. The company’s namesake is a well-known tropical starch, because “adding it makes videos better than SMS,” says Wurster. In mobile technology, Tapioca also is a framework for VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol).

Wurster says Tapioca received $500,000 in seed funding from the Rockefeller family venture capital firm, Venrock, in September 2007, and $5 million more in March 2008. Wurster says Venrock wanted to be the sole funding provider. The wireless startup now has approximately a dozen employees.

At the outset, they figured that mobile phones have three ways to reach people: applications, mobile web, and messaging, each with its own limitations. “With applications you can have stunning user experiences,” he says, “but for each application you have a very small number of handsets. When you create an iPhone app, that’s a really small percentage of the marketplace. With the mobile web you get a bunch of information to users, but you eliminate a huge portion of the market, because you can only reach people with the proper data plans and phone browsers and so on. With SMS you can address almost all the handsets, but you are limited to 160 message characters.”

So Tapioca chose video and MMS.

In the United States, many carriers subsidize the cost of cellular handsets, which allows them to dictate some of the applications for wireless devices, according to Wurster. That contributes to some of the technical challenges that Tapioca faces. Another problem for Tapioca is the system used by a lot of carriers, which requires cell phone users to pay for incoming calls or messages they receive. This discourages people from using their mobile phones.

At Tapioca Mobile, Wurster believes the cell-phone market will become even more fragmented. “Our goal is to empower the delivery of messages so that people get the best video possible.” He envisions Tapioca growing its revenue stream with hundreds of millions of yearly messages in the coming years. The company welcomes future LTE/WiMax fast networks, although they won’t affect Tapioca directly. “But the faster the network, the better the video experience becomes,” Wurster says.

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