Still, Nobody's Using MMS
By Carlo Longino, Fri Dec 03 23:45:00 GMT 2004

Even though two thirds of the handsets sold last quarter were cameraphones, the reality remains that few users are sending multimedia messages. But success could lie in person-to-person, not phone-to-phone, messaging.

A research firm noticed this week that twice as many cameraphones as non-camera handsets were sold in the third quarter, and that just over half the phones sold so far in 2004 have cameras, but MMS usage remains low. The report cites high prices as a main deterrent, while others point to a continuing lack of interoperability and problems users have getting their phones set up to properly use the service.

Another main problem is still poor image quality -- and until it markedly improves, sending messages from one phone to another isn't compelling enough to drive consumer MMS usage. It's doubtful even the most ardent backers of MMS will argue that phone-to-phone messaging is its killer application, at least at this point. But as image quality improves, and if the service and applications using it can evolve, person-to-person messaging could have a bright future.

Note I said person-to-person, not phone-to-phone: I'm not convinced that sending pictures from phone to phone will ever be all that popular. I'm sure it will get used some, particularly as download speeds improve, but picture messages simply won't replace SMS as a primary means of communication. But when image quality and transmission speeds improve, using MMS to send pictures to other people will grow, they just won't be receiving them on their mobile phones.

After all, what good is a 2-megapixel or more image on a handset screen? Not much, really. But just as technologies marrying SMS to landlines is taking hold, so too will technologies linking MMS to various other media. It already exists in a basic form, the ability to send MMS to e-mail addresses, and is becoming more mainstream in the rise of moblogging. But again, sending a low-quality image to somebody or posting it on a blog isn't very cool -- but megapixel cameraphones will start to turn the tide.

Innovations like the Nokia Image Frame are the first step. It's a digital picture frame with a SIM card that can receive and display MMS. A pretty simple idea, but one that seems to make sense in a lot of ways -- at the right price and implemented properly, it would be a great gift for Grandma so she could see what the grandkids are up to, or for somebody who travels a lot to leave at home for their loved ones. It builds on the idea of a picture message as a present, and it's easy to see your grandmother getting up each day hoping to see a new picture.

Services and products that build on this idea and take advantage of higher-quality images will boost SMS. Many digital cable and satellite TV boxes already feature some sort of messaging function, and it's not hard to imagine digital TV providers offering a service where these boxes could receive MMS to display them on users' television screens. A fuzzy image on a phone screen isn't very interesting, but a sharp image on a screen big enough to make out details is.

One remaining barrier, as usual, remains: pricing. Clearly users don't think MMS is delivering enough value to justify its cost at this point; but with better pictures and more ways to share them, they just might.