Multimedia Messaging: The Next Big Thing?
By Joachim Bamrud, Wed Mar 07 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Multimedia Messaging Services (MMS) promise to take the SMS-boom to the next level, with more advanced applications.

With lower-than expected revenues from WAP and higher-than expected costs for 3G licenses, many operators have been eager to find the data application that can bring in a healthy amount of income.

They believe theyíve found it in Multimedia Messaging Services (MMS). I agree. Of the four applications increasingly seen as the key drivers of 3G, MMS has the potential to be the most popular by far. (The other three are location-based services, m-commerce and games/entertainment).

The reason? Like SMS (and Internet chat rooms and Napster-like sites, for that matter), MMS is a peer-to-peer application. Unlike SMS, MMS will be able to deliver color photos and video clips as well.

So imagine the booming SMS market going one step further and using the same network and same phone numbers to send not only 160-character messages, but also fresh photos from a vacation abroad. Or an important event such as the birth of your baby or the sports championship your child just won. In only instants, those events can be shared with family and friends worldwide.

What used to be known as the Kodak moment will be known as the instant moment, as one Nokia executive said at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes recently.

Sending video clips will also be a major breakthrough. Imagine sending a birthday greeting to a friend with a video of Marilyn Monroeís famous tribute to Jack Kennedy. Or (as we suspect will be more popular) an MTV-video of your friendís favorite popstar.

MMS also has potential to become a political tool. Think of the events in the Philippines where SMS was used to spread anti-Estrada news and couple that with historically important events such as the first statements from George W. Bush and Al Gore after the chaotic US elections.

The developers

Both Nokia and Ericsson have developed MMS applications. Nokiaís MMS Center will be available to operators in the third quarter, while Ericssonís MMS Center will be available in the fourth quarter. In terms of terminals, the Nokia 9210 Communicator (soon to be released) will be able to handle MMS, while Ericssonís first MMS-enabled terminals will be available during the first quarter next year. Both MMS solutions can operate on GSM, GPRS or 3G networks and terminals.

While the first version of MMS will undoubtedly be seen as a breakthrough, itís the 3G version that will make the big difference. Iíve seen data transfers of photos and moving images on GPRS and itís a far cry from even the less-than-perfect Web: The photos come out blurry and the moving images move too slowly (and if youíre not looking at moonwalkers doing their thing, slow doesnít really have that much appeal).

While GPRS can transfer data at speeds up to 114 kbps (if all time slots are used and operators have full coverage), moving images typically need at least 144 kbps and ideally 384 kbps before they become appealing. And those are bandwidths you can only find through 3G networks.

The challenges for repeating the SMS success will be the availability and price of the appropriate terminals. After all, one of the reasons for SMS having a bigger success than WAP was that SMS worked on any GSM phone.

Although MMS can work with GSM and GPRS terminals, itís only with 3G that the producers are including built-in cameras. And that I think will be just as key as the ability to send photos through your phone. After all, how much easier isnít it to just use your mobile phone to click a photo than to use a separate camera, then load the image to your phone? Not to mention the fact thatís itís much easier to carry just one device.

The costs

The prices for sending MMS may be another. According to Anssi Vanjoki, vice president of Nokia Mobile Phones, operators are studying prices that range from 0.5 Euro (approximately US$0.46) to 2 Euro, although some even are considering operating with the same levels as SMS (which can cost as little as $0.10).

The relatively low price of SMS has without doubt been a key factor in the significant usage by teenagers and explains the incredible growth. Last October, there were an estimated 12 billion SMS sent worldwide. Thatís 12 times more than what was sent in April 1999. And some producers, including Nokia, are now predicting 100 billion SMS by the end of next year.

While teenagers have been driving much of the SMS boom so far, other groups may spur future SMS use as well. Already weíre seeing TV shows, especially in Scandinavia, using SMS as a way for the audience to vote on sections of a program. In other markets, especially the UK, many Web and WAP content providers are using SMS as an option to charge for additional information.

MMS holds an even larger potential, since it can transfer live images of sports events, for example, while letting users bet on the outcome. Or music events, where the most popular band can be voted for through 3G-terminals. Or even a political rally, where participants (after hearing two opposing speeches) can vote on the solution they want.

The bottom line: MMS has more potential applications than SMS. But only after 3G terminals become commonplace, will these applications see their full potential.

Joachim Bamrud is an award-winning journalist with 17 years experience as a writer and editor in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Bamrud has worked for various print, broadcast and online media, including Latin Trade, Reuters and UPI. He can be reached at