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California (Tech) Dreamin'

Frank Ahrens

It's good to be back. I was out in Southern California last week working on a story that will probably appear later this week.

Aside from the obvious delights of SoCal (basically, it's paradise -- sunny and 79 every day I was there), I've noticed that the market is an early adopter on all sorts of technology.

When I was in L.A. over the summer, I couldn't drive a block without seeing a billboard for the Helio ("don't call it a cell phone") cell phone.

Sleek, small and white or black, almost iPoddy, the Helio is a personal do-everything device -- cell phone, PDA, mp3 player, camera, etc. etc. Helio is not a cell phone company like Verizon, it is an MVNO -- mobile virtual network operator. Such a company does not own a network, it buys time on someone else's network. It's a risky proposition -- Disney recently launched its own MVNO, but Fox Mobile took a look at the concept and passed.

Heard about the Helio here? Didn't think so. But it's solidly in the vernacular in L.A. among showbiz types. I heard actor Timothy Olyphant ("Deadwood") call in to a morning radio show last week and refer to his Helio.

Another area where SoCal is ahead of the curve is outdoor advertising.

One of the most interesting unwritten stories in media right now -- and yes, I'll get to it -- is the boom in what used to be called billboards.

A big revolution came a number of years ago when machines were invented that printed entire billboard overlays in one or just a few pieces huge pieces. Slap 'em up and you've got a billboard.

Today's billboard revolution is fueled by digital technology.

Where ad spending across all media -- TV, radio, newspapers, etc. -- is growing at about a 2 percent to 5 percent clip, outdoor advertising revenue for the first nine months of this year jumped 9 percent over last year, says the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

The reason? Digital billboards. No longer is it one advertiser per billboard; the changing messages allow billboard owners to rent their real estate to multiple advertisers at a time.

In SoCal, they're extraordinary -- gorgeous and artful, hideous and garish. And they are everywhere. Even second-tier businesses can afford grand roadside digital billboards along the region's freeways.

I don't know if the Helio will make its way East, but you can bet that as traditional media companies struggle with advertising, digital billboards -- the one big growth area -- will soon start popping up around Washington.

Today In The Post:

* Kim Hart reports on the diaspora of former AOL execs, launching tech start-ups around the region.

Elsewhere:

* Random digital camera tip o' the day (no, don't expect one every day): Turning your camera upside down, so the flash is at the bottom of the camera rather than on top, produces better flashed portraits, this report alleges. Check the evidence yourself.

* Gizmondo reports that if Apple creates a cell phone, it cannot be called the iPhone. Someone else already took the name. D'oh!

By Frank Ahrens  |  December 18, 2006; 12:59 PM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
Previous: The Viral Videos of 2006 | Next: How's This Whole NBC 2.0 Thing Working Out?


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