Wireless weather

Weather forecasting is, for the most part, a visual endeavor. If it weren't, you wouldn't have spent a fair chunk of change on the interactive weather map your on-camera meteorologists use to display tomorrow's expected weather patterns.

On the other hand, cell phones and personal digital assistants, with their small non-backlit screens and tiny keyboards, do not lend well to displaying visual information. Most of us don't use our mobile devices to access data.

Paul Douglas, chief meteorologist at WCCO-TV Minneapolis, is quite familiar with these assumptions, but he has dedicated much of his life's work to disproving them-or, at least, to rendering them outdated.

Douglas is CEO and co-founder of Digital Cyclone, a company that uses its free, consumer-based My-Cast service to offer syndicated "personal weather content" to 35 broadcast-TV Web sites around the nation. My-Cast , funded in part with a $5 million investment by Belo Corp., offers pinpointed personal forecasts based on 4-mile grids in major metro areas and is updated at least eight times a day.

Lately, Digital Cyclone has been testing a suite of weather-data services on a new generation of "smart phones" based on the Palm operating system. Douglas notes that the services will be shown at the National Association of Broadcasters convention this month, with a launch expected by early May.

The services will provide short-range and long-range forecasts, plus hourly temperature and wind numbers and precipitation-likelihood prognostications. Additionally, My-Cast will offer radar readings, which, in Douglas' words, will "offer 1-km resolution of any neighborhood in the viewing area."

Forecasts will be displayed with icons, symbols (for various weather components) and text. Users in a given market will be able to sign up for the mobile service through the My-Cast Web site or, possibly, through the Web site of the My-Cast-affiliated television station in their area.

Douglas sees the mobile My-Cast service as having promotional cachet for TV stations that offer it, as well as utility for end users. "In my mind, [the service] will be a matter of touching the potential viewer many times during the day, establishing a connection other than at 5, 6 or 10 p.m." he explains.

"You'll be able to give people a quick burst of weather information right down to their neighborhoods," he adds. "Using that cell phone as a platform, you'll have lucrative branding as well as a promotional opportunity to get people back to your news [broadcast]."

But what kind of a "platform" do the tiny screens on today's mobile communications devices enable? More than you might think, Douglas tells me.

And he's right. Some of the newest digital phones hitting the market in North America run on the Wireless Application Protocol, which contains an authoring "language" that facilitates the development and display of the kind of basic graphical components My-Cast will offer.

Later this year, DoCoMo i-Mode, an authoring and display environment for wireless content developed by Japanese phone company NTT DoCoMo Group Inc., will make its North American debut. Since Japanese cell phones equipped with DoCoMo capability are currently able to offer videogames, putting weather radar on such devices won't be a stretch.

Similarly, the PDA market is picking up display heft as well. The latest versions of Compaq iPaq, Handspring Visor, Casio Cassiopeia, as well as some Palm models, offer enough graphics capability to easily support something like My-Cast.

Of course, all the graphics capability in the world will not be useful without a supporting business model. For local affiliates, Douglas envisions use of a one-sentence promotional announcement at the top of the user screen, perhaps touting a featured segment to be shown on the evening newscast. A banner at the top of the screen is also possible.

Although the final decision has not yet been made, Douglas says a modest subscription fee of $2 to $3 a month would be welcomed by end users who would value the customization of staying current with weather on the go.

Douglas expects to make some "how do we monetize this?" decisions after the NAB convention.