Say It Like You Mean It
By Peggy Anne Salz, Tue Sep 07 07:45:00 GMT 2004

MMS is good for more than sharing snapshots. Operators across Asia – and soon Vodafone – are developing new services around emotive content.

There’s no tactful way to put it: MMS adoption is a disappointment. Indeed, one survey conducted by NOP in the UK concludes that 80% of subscribers have “no interest in MMS.” Read between the lines and that spells trouble for the future of MMS everywhere.

Granted usability, interoperability, device penetration and price issues abound, but the real problem is the industry’s mindset. After all, where did the enthusiasm for picture-messaging come from in the first place? It came from the assumption that a new feature, in this case a built-in camera, would drive new services and deliver new revenue streams. This argument, however, is built on the premise that user behavior is driven by technology. That was the industry’s first -- and fatal -- mistake.

This “build-it-and-they-will-come” approach has led the industry into a dead-end. Operators have to move beyond the picture-taking breed of services and focus on integrating audio and video into users’ everyday communication.

Asia’s Personal Touch

Against this backdrop, several clever operators across Asia are recharging their bland MMS offerings with emotion, personalization and fun.

“SMS taught us economies of scale kick in when you have a lively exchange of messages between users,” explains Ramon Isberto, an executive at SMART, a mobile operator in the Philippines with over 15 million users. “SMS also created loyal, active user communities -- and we want to do the same with MMS.”

With 40% of its user base under the age of 25, SMART is forced to be original. “Our users respond more to fun than functionality,” Isberto observes. So -- rather than adopt the complicated and cash-intensive model of developing and delivering compelling content to users -- SMART decided to help users create fun content themselves. “We believe emotive content is key, and this is where we are positioning ourselves.”

The operator looked to DA Group, the Scotland-based trailblazer in the field of virtual character technology (best known as the architect of Ananova, the world’s first virtual newscaster now owned by Orange.) DA Group’s StereoTypes platform effectively turns text messages into talking character video messages that reflect the mood of the text that has been entered by the sender.

This is possible because the technology creates a perfect fit between emotional words and phrases in text -- such as “happy,” “sorry,” and “I love you” -- and the character's movements. (For example, “I’m thrilled to see you” would trigger the animated character to jump for joy.) Users can choose from a host of animated characters, ranging from a James Bond-like secret agent to a lick-my-boots dominatrix.

Last year SMART was the first to introduce StereoTypes. While DA Group’s solution was a bit primitive at that time, the scheme to boost usage by allowing users to create and send an animated greeting paid off. SMART is tight-lipped about revenues, but admits usage growth was both “significant” and “surprising.” So much so that SMART decided in May to move to DA Group’s enhanced version for 2.5G phones that can playback video.

DA Group’s new version StereoTypes – also available for 3G -- includes talking avatar video content, improved audio content and increased file size availability. However, the most striking difference is the integration of the text to speech engine with full motion video – this allows the characters to speak the words entered by the sender while performing their quirky animations.

SMART says it’s confident the new functionality will help further boost MMS usage and revenues. In June and July, Singtel in Singapore and 3 in Hong Kong and Australia quietly followed suit and deployed StereoTypes in their markets.

Vodafone’s Community Drive

But the operator to watch is Vodafone. Together with Saw-You, an avatar software firm and DA Group partner, Vodafone is gearing up to launch a mobile community portal in Vodafone Live! in October. The operator hasn’t formally announced its plans, but Mike Kinsella, Saw-You's CEO, says the service will potentially create the industry’s largest MMS mobile community.

Saw-You’s Weemee avatars are personalized characters that users create to interact in their social networks. Before users go out for the night, they create avatars online with details such as clothes color and the venues they plan to visit. When they enter the club they can check their phones for other Weemees. Since Saw-You automatically groups venues, users can then easily and anonymously identify each other and start communicating.

Saw-You’s avatars have gained considerable traction and the company counts 3 million online users in the UK alone. The Vodafone service will allow users to create and update their avatars via the mobile portal. Moreover, Vodafone is also likely to follow up by delivering this capability directly to users’ devices. Saw-You executives expect Vodafone to deploy TxtM8, a soon-to-be-announced Java user interface for MMS or WAP-push solutions jointly developed by Saw-You and DA Group. Vodafone, however, is predictably tight-lipped about its future plans.

The Java app will give users greater flexibility to create and personalize their avatars on the fly -- and a detour around having to access the fixed Internet.

Avatars on the Fly

Indeed, this marks the start of a truly mobile mobile community. It also puts operators at the center of the action -- enabling them to charge for a slew of new avatar personalization and customization services that go far beyond music and wallpaper.

In fact, it could become the Barbie Doll/Action Hero doll phenomenon all over again -- with users buying cool outfits or gadgets to complete their image and impress their peers.

To add the final element of personalization, DA Group developers are working on a solution allowing users to speak the messages the characters deliver. This would allow people who don’t like to text to send entertaining and engaging MMS messages. What’s more, operators would rake in revenues from both the MMS message and the voice call to create it.

The jury is out on whether 3 million Weemee community members will choose to reside in Vodafone’s new mobile portal. However, the upcoming launch -- and the deployments of a growing number of mobile operators in Asia -- speaks volumes about the importance of emotive content in future MMS offers.

Operators are waking up to the fact that cameraphones aren’t only for taking and sharing pictures. They can be the basis of richer messaging services. Like SMS, all operators have to do is provide the platform. The users will do the rest.