World Report: The Big Picture of MMS Part II
By Niall McKay, Fri Jul 11 00:00:00 GMT 2003

Europe and the US need to think wireless - and avoid the word 'The Internet'.


In World Report: The Big Picture of MMS Part I TheFeature.com reported on what services were available in Asia, currently the home of the most advanced cellular services. Now, in Part II we will have a look at what's going on in Europe and the US.

Western Europe has been a hotbed of picture-messaging activity. Telenor of Norway launched the world’s first commercial MMS service in March, and services have also been opened in Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and the UK, with most carriers planning to offer services by the end of 2002. Pricing is all over the place, with most carriers offering per-message rates that are at least 50% higher than SMS charges, generally between EUR0.50 and 1, while some carriers are offering flat-rate plans, such as T-Mobile UK’s GBP20 per month plan that lets users send up to 10MB worth of messages. Most carriers have, however, offered introductory periods letting users try out the service for no charge.

The high price of the required enhanced handsets may have an impact on the uptake of the services, with SonyEricsson T68 prices varying from EUR300-500, depending on carrier subsidies. Telecom Italia Mobile, in keeping with their policy of not subsidizing handsets, plans to sell the Nokia 7650 for EUR 699 (although they will throw in EUR 20 worth of free calls…). Certainly in the run-up to Christmas there will be frenetic action among carriers to launch their services and have a wide array of MMS-compatible handsets for sale in time for the gift-buying season.

But European carriers still face two big hurdles to MMS success: reaching a critical mass of users, and interconnection agreements. The pricey handsets mentioned above, and the fact that MMS isn’t backwards-compatible with SMS means that until a good number of subscribers have enabled handsets, person-to-person traffic won’t take off. This should put the onus on carriers to push for enhanced messaging content, the first type of which will likely be news or sports stories with pictures added. But it also means carriers must push the ways in which enhanced messages can be shared with non-subscribers, currently through Web-based albums or via an e-mail or standard SMS in which the recipient is directed to a Web address that holds the message.

Interconnection also remains a headache at this early stage. While it should be possible to use MMS services wherever a carrier has a GPRS roaming agreement, the only commercial MMS interconnection agreement in the world has been signed by Finland’s Sonera and the Hong Kong carrier CSL. It’s even unclear at this point if a message sent from say, a T-Mobile Germany subscriber to a T-Mobile UK user will get there. Until messages can be sent across carriers within the same country, usage will remain low.

US

As with most other wireless technologies, the US is lagging a bit with picture messaging services, but the arrival of GPRS and 1x networks has narrowed the gap between the States and the rest of the world.

AT&T Wireless has launched its m-mode service on the SonyEricsson T68, and plans to soon offer the same digital camera attachment available to consumers elsewhere in the world (the camera is already available from third-party vendors on the Web for around $150). But the carriers’ GPRS network only functions in about 30 cities across the country, and there’s been no word on when the picture messaging services will be available, though it’s rumored the carrier will offer the SonyEricsson P800 hybrid with a built-in camera in the third quarter.

But more exciting is the exego application from US developer Summus, available from Verizon Wireless on their 1x “Express” network that utilizes Qualcomm’s BREW platform to allow for the downloading of applications. Although it’s a powerful application that makes it much more than just a rival to MMS, Verizon is showing off exego as a photo-sharing app.

Users upload their digital images to an exego Web account, then log on to that account with the application that resides in their mobile device. They can then send the images to other exego mobile users, and quickly at that thanks to the massive compression exego uses. They can also use their Web account to make their images public or add captions, sounds, or other effects to their picture messages. What makes exego so interesting is its compression technology – Summus says it can be used to send images over data links as slow as 4 kbits/second – which makes it a suitable transmission technology for wireless multimedia data, not necessarily a rival to such services.

Don't Mention the Web

So about the success of the technology? Well if Japan is anything to go by – and it usually is in the consumer electronics business – then there is little doubt that the MMS will become a major success. The question is when? Certainly, so far, both Europe and the US are making two major mistakes. Firstly, they are trying to market the technology, not the applications. MMS, for example, is not a phrase that Japanese subscribers are familiar with, although virtually every cell phone subscriber can send and receive multimedia messages. Secondly, when European and US providers do eventually get around to mentioning the applications they talk in terms of an Internet experience - typically, e-mailing and web browsing. Japanese operators are not that foolish. For example, Wireless Access Protocol, so much the failure in Europe, is the underlying technology used for content services in Japan. But the Japanese don't try and compete with the Internet experience. They sell services like sending a text messages, looking up a train timetable, or sending a photograph to a friend. And rightly so, after all, mobile phones can’t compete with computers when it comes to email browsing in the same way as they can’t compete with cameras when it comes to taking photos.