Rich Media Now
By Jeff Goldman, Wed Jul 25 00:00:00 GMT 2001

It's the dawning of a new age for mobile communications - but while others are waiting for the sun to rise, one company has already gotten to work.


Starting to wonder if you'll ever be able to watch streaming video on your mobile? You're not alone. As 3G struggles with more and more challenges, the deployment of wireless streaming video seems more distant than ever.

In the meantime, however, one company is making the best of the current situation. FunMail, based in Pleasanton, California, is offering a text-to-animation messaging system that instantly transforms your written message into an animated cartoonżand it'll work on just about any handset with graphics capabilities, regardless of the bandwidth available.

According to market analysis firm Datamonitor, eighty percent of the anticipated 1 billion wireless subscribers will be accessing entertainment offerings on mobile devices by 2005. And Don Longueuil, a wireless analyst for Cahners In-Stat Group, anticipates that an average of 57 billion messages will be sent each month in 2004.

Put the two together, and you've got the potential for one very hot property.

Longueuil couldn't be more enthusiastic about FunMail's integration of entertainment and messaging. "I think their service is really kind of revolutionary," he said. "It's the most advanced wireless messaging service that I'm aware of."

Richer media


FunMail was started in May of 1999 by Adam Lavine and Dennis Chen, who had previously founded the animation software firm Specular International. Specular's Infini-D software was used to create animations for the Academy Awards, MTV, Citibank, and the Miss America Pageant, among many others. In 1997, Specular was acquired by MetaCreations, now Viewpoint Corporation, in a $6 million deal.

Lavine, now FunMail's CEO, explains that the FunMail concept was a logical step from the pair's previous work. "We felt that it would be great to try and build a real time animation engine that would let people author animation using text," he said. "Everyone can type, so it opens up the world of content creation from a very narrow band of high end professionals to the whole world."

The concept behind FunMail is simple. The user writes a message, then FunMail's natural language processor looks for key words in that message and instantly builds a cartoon based on them, working from animations created by FunMail's in-house team of animators. Both in creating and in sending an animated message, the FunMail system matches the graphics to the capabilities of the device, whether it's a desktop, PDA, or a WAP or i-Mode phone.

Simple, yes, but it's a very promising concept. In the recent Bear Stearns report Mobile Internet and Applications, researcher Jeffrey Fieler described FunMail as "the equivalent of Blue Mountain Arts for mobile messaging." Just as Blue Mountain Arts got us all sending birthday cards online, FunMail just might get people to do the same with a quick SMS message.

And if Fieler's right, the opportunity is enormous: the GSM Association predicts that 200 billion SMS messages will be sent this year alone, and Lavine just wants a small part of that action. "We look at it as message share: if we get one percentage point of the messages being sent, then we're doing great," Lavine said.

First, Asia...


Japan is certainly the right place to start. Lavine recalls that the push to develop FunMail for wireless was really initiated when he saw the possibilities offered by i-Mode phones. "I flew over to Japan to go and see it for myself," he said. "And from that point on we were focused on making the technology completely wireless-enabled."

In order to do so, however, the company took an unusual step. "We decided the best way to tackle the market was with a Japanese subsidiary that had Japanese management and Japanese investors," Lavine said. "American companies are sometimes successful in Japan, but they're often not. And so we figured having a Japanese counterpart would help us do deals over there."

The plan seems to have paid off. Just a few weeks ago, FunMail Japan launched on Japan's NEC BIGLOBE network making the text-to-animation service available to about 9 million potential subscribers. NEC's customers can subscribe to the service for 200 Yen a month (about $1.60 US), with some premium branded characters, such as the characters from South Park or the hugely popular Hello Kitty, available for an additional fee.

And the market for this kind of offering is excellent. Bear Stearns' Fieler observes that Bandai's character download service in Japan already has 3 million subscribers - and FunMail goes one step further, integrating such characters into a messaging offering. To Fieler, that extra step is key. "Although conceptually simplistic, we believe that animation will drive incremental messaging," he wrote.

Lavine notes that a fundamental strength of the Japanese market is the presence of color screens. "FunMail is really, really great on a color phone," he said. "It's pretty good on a grayscale phone, but it's great on a color phone. I think that's the number one factor, and Japan just has an infrastructure that works. They have rigid standards agreed upon by the whole market, and that really helps quite a bit."

...then the world


FunMail's ability to work with just about any platform will become crucial as the company explores the potential markets in Europe and the United States. "We're going to be in Europe by the end of the year," Lavine said. "In terms of the whole phenomenon of how people communicate with each other, we intend to have a product for every way a person wants to do it."

And, he adds, the requirements aren't all that advanced. "It's purely a matter of handset capabilities," Lavine said. "FunMail works on the equivalent of a 9600 baud network. People think you need lots of bandwidth for animation, but it's not true. Animation actually has a lot more emotional power than video, because you can have a character that conveys a very strong emotional stateżbut it requires just a fraction of the bandwidth."

Tuncay Cil, FunMail's Director of Product Marketing, contends it's simpler to just forget about 2G, 2.5G, or 3G, and just look at the phone itself. "This is our least common denominator: whenever you support graphics on a handset, we can be offered as a value added service," he said. It's that kind of simplicity that can make deployment in Europe, and even in the United States, seem like a reasonable expectation.

Even more than its flexibility, though, In-Stat's Longueuil suggests that branding will be key to FunMail's success. "If you eat at McDonald's here in the States, and you're traveling in Budapest and you're looking for somewhere to eat, you're going to go with what you know," he said. "I think that's a crucial part of the package, having the already existing content."

Lavine agrees. "I think to a large degree it's going to be the content that makes this very successful," he said. "We're getting some really great content partners lined up. And because we have a real-time animation engine, that enables us to do lots of interesting things. The best metaphor is probably product placement: I don't think people want ads blasted to their phone, but I think they're willing to put on a Nike sweatshirt."

That means that not only can FunMail incorporate popular characters like Hello Kitty into their messages, they can also incorporate corporate logos and themes. More than the revenue potential, Lavine sees it as a matter of broadening users' options. "If people have the choice over what branded content they want to use in their message, I think that's ultimately more valuable to the advertiser, and more interesting for the user," he said.

Who needs 3G?


FunMail's flexibility with different platforms will be a key asset as carriers deal with integration of 2G, 2.5G, and 3G services. As handset capabilities improve, FunMail makes the carrier look good by immediately enabling them to offer animated messaging-even if they're still limited in terms of bandwidth.

Cil notes that the sales pitch is easiest in countries where new services are just being launched. "Think about a European carrier," he said. "They already have 2G and they may be launching GPRS, so the main issue there is, now we have these great networks and services, but what are we going to do with them? You can't do streaming media on them; you can't even do full blown Flash animation on them. We go to the carrier and say, we can build on what you already have."

According to Cil, what FunMail's trying to do is to offer such a complete, turnkey package that no carrier can turn it down. "If you're doing great on messaging and graphics, that's good, but it's not enough," he said. "Or if you're, say, Disney, and you have content, that's great, but if you're not able to deliver it in the right way with the right application, that's still not enough. We bring branded content, all these graphics, colors, and wireless delivery capabilities, and messaging, all together in one turnkey platform."

Having found his perfect niche in the gap between 2G and 3G, Lavine couldn't be happier. "We're really, really excited about the next couple of years," he said. "I don't think the network's going to be ready for video for a few years, but it's ready for animation now."

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for Internet.com's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.