Act Now or Lose Out On This Special Offer
By Justin Pearse, Mon Nov 01 08:00:00 GMT 2004

Operators aren't just pricing MMS out of subscribers' reach, but out of the reach of the content providers they thought would drive MMS adoption.

Poor old WAPís had a tough time over the last few years. The protocol that ushered in the concept of the mobile Internet four years ago to cries of joy was then repeatedly forced to take a sound thrashing when it turned out the clunky experience on offer wasnít all the operatorsí marketing had hyped it to be. In the meantime users moved on the delights of SMS as a content medium. So itís kind of ironic that WAP is today one of the main culprits strangling development of another mobile content medium on which so much hope was pinned, MMS.

Of course, itís not WAPís fault. In fact itís the quality of the once beleaguered but now in the ascendant technology thatís holding up the development of MMS as a content medium in the UK.

Go back a couple of years and both analysts and media pundits were predicting that it would be content that would drive MMS, rather than peer to peer messaging, both from content owners such as the big media companies and brands through richer mobile marketing campaigns. However in the UK this has not come to pass. Surprisingly though, talk to any large media owner or marketing agency and the one thing theyíre not worried about anymore is handset penetration.

The problem is that the underlying infrastructure is a mess. Wholesale offerings from operators are still thin on the ground, prices are very high, there is no cross-network premium MMS or shortcodes, and there are network capacity issues. In fact, Robert Marsh, commissioning and producer relations, 4Interactive, Channel 4, says delivery issues are still such a "huge issue," it is holding off on launching MMS content.

And this is where WAP comes in. The majority of MMS content is actually not pure MMS at all but WAP Push. Instead of a sparkling piece of MMS content sent direct through an operatorís MMSc, it is delivered via a virtual MMSc offered by an aggregator like WIN. An SMS notification that MMS content has arrived is sent to a subscriber's handset, which then pulls the content down over a GPRS connection.

The reason for this alternative solution is simple, price. UK operators have agreed high interconnect charges, around 15p for an MMS compared to around 3p for an SMS. "The reality is that if WAP Push didnít exist MMS content would be very popular," says MX Telecom MD Mark Fitzgerald. "The dilemma content providers have is to either use a very cheap multimedia delivery mechanism with WAP Push or pure MMS which is a very good user experience costs three times as much."

This price differential is a significant barrier to the brands that could do so much to help drive MMS uptake, as was seen with SMS. As Mobile Networking founder Craig Barrack points out, with an operator rate card for sending MMS around 30p, "if you compare this to 3p for an SMS campaign, with an average 8% response rate, brands will need to see an 80% response rate with an MMS message!"

The question, of course, is does this really matter? Most in the industry would argue that it does. Multimedia content is just starting to take off and, as we move beyond the early adopter market, customer experience is everything. Content delivered via WAP Push is a relatively straightforward experience but nowhere near as compelling as a pure MMS message.

In addition, WAP Push MMS content involves the recipient also paying for the GPRS traffic to download a message. Again, this is fine in the early days of this type of content but as the market matures it could become an issue. For instance, content providers want to advertise one price for content, without having to add Ďtraffic costs may be additional,í and brands will be wary of the PR nightmare of being seen to charge for content give-aways.

"The operators really havenít thought how the marketing community can drive uptake of MMS," complains mobile marketing agency Aerodeon MD Andrew Jones.

Operators are quick to defend their position. "This is not operators profiteering," says O2 head of messaging Sandy Ryrie. "MMS includes two SMS messages, the GPRS connection, MMS capacity in the network and transcoding, itís much more complex than SMS.

However, the situation does seem eerily reminiscent of the early days of premium SMS when content providers were tearing their hair out of over the lack of supporting infrastructure Ė no cross-network capacity, no premium short codes and so on.

Interestingly, many content owners are already looking to video instead of MMS as the rich mobile medium theyíre looking towards. "I donít think MMS will be a huge revenue earner," says Claire Tavernier, senior VP interactive at media giant Fremantle Media. "Even video looks like taking off faster than MMS." In fact, at MTV, which is obviously making a big play for mobile video, head of interactive Mathew Kershaw described MMS as merely "emails with attachments."

This is not to say MMS is not making impressive baby steps. MMS soap operas from both Endemol and Mersey Television are demonstrating the innovation the medium is driving but thereís still a long way to go until we move beyond MMS merely being seen as a medium for wallpapers. If the operators don't start providing more support for third parties, MMS could even be passed over altogether as a serious content medium.