Mobile Show And Tell
By Howard Rheingold, Mon Sep 16 00:00:00 GMT 2002

While we await the rollout of 3G networks, some companies are building creative new services out of existing technology.

Fabrice Florin held his handset in front of me to show a pitch for his company, Handtap, demonstrating in action what Florin calls "mobile show and tell." Florin thinks he has a killer app for wireless multimedia, and the companies around the world who have invested in wireless infrastructure would be happy if Florin's forecast is accurate.

The wireless industry has bet heavily that multimedia messaging (MMS) will ride on the success of SMS, setting off a badly needed new gold rush around the exchange of picture messages between wireless devices. But despite the hopes and hype, mass-adoption of peer-to-peer MMS is still a few years away - broadband wireless infrastructure required for MMS is late to market, scattered geographically, and still too expensive for most consumers. That doesn't deter multimedia entrepreneur Florin, who reminds me that the same could have been said about the personal computer and the Internet.

Florin should know: based in the San Francisco Bay Area, he was a founding member of Apple's Multimedia Lab back in the age of the floppy disk, and went on to break new ground as Macromedia's vice-president of online entertainment, where he led content and web teams for the popular site. Now he is the CEO of Handtap, a provider of wireless multimedia content and software.

"Simple but effective forms of wireless multimedia are quietly beginning to emerge, even though the industry is in its infancy," Florin told me. "MMS may take a few years to reach critical mass, but people are already beginning to use images and sounds on their mobile devices to make an impression anytime, anyplace, face to face." Hence, his use of the term "mobile show and tell." In part, Handtap products are designed around the use of mobile multimedia as a face-to-face medium for both social and business communication.

Wireless Comics

"People all over the world already share their handsets, passing them around to show each other text messages and graphics," Florin notes. "I think young adults will show off their cool new screensavers to their friends or view wireless comics together. Families will show off their photo albums when they meet relatives, and business people will get their point across with a handheld, multimedia elevator pitch."

Handtap products include operator logos and picture messages, screensavers and wireless greetings for both personal and business uses, available for mobile phones and handheld computers. Their popular line of 'wireless comics' features Garfield, Dick Tracy and dozens of characters distributed worldwide for SMS and MMS handsets. For example, Handtap and their partner Uclick are the leading provider of comic content for Club Nokia's Cartoon Channel.

Handtap and partner Bigshot Media have released a new collection of wireless photos for mobile phones. Their animated screensavers, to be launched later this year, bring a cinematic style to wireless multimedia that beginS to reveal how a totally new medium is emerging on small portable screens.

Handtap's flagship product, "Zipnotes," is a suite of content and software bundles that let users create their own notes and messages on PalmOS or PocketPC devices. Zipnotes can be used as personal reminders - or sent to any email, SMS or MMS address, using software from partner Electric Pocket.

"We think your handset is not just a tool, but also a way to express who you are," says Florin. "So we design our products to help you stand out from the crowd by adding style, humor and visual impact to your daily communications."

Visualize This

Florin's background at Apple and Macromedia thoroughly indoctrinated him in the necessity for user testing. Before designing his products, his surveys and focus groups of representative users painted a picture of people using their communication handsets as personal display devices for socializing, entertainment, and business communications

"A broad selection of content is essential", says Florin. "Different styles appeal to different people. For example, our hip Bizarro and Captain RibMan comics appeal more to young males, while women prefer to pick characters such as Cathy or Stone Soup. And while over a third of our audience really enjoys comics, an even larger group prefers to jazz up their phone with photographic content. Since most people are not artists, it's important to give them quality imagery that fits their style, along with simple tools for them to personalize it."

Florin is betting on Zipnotes as a candidate for a crossover application that will jump from the relatively small market of PDA enthusiasts to the far larger world of mobile telephones: "Our PDA customers start using Zipnotes to create personal reminders and organize themselves on the go, until they figure out they can also send quick picture messages like "I'm on my way" or "Thinking of you." Then they're hooked. This is as w the use we originally intended -media-rich content helps you add a personal touch and a bit of humor to social communications.

Florin doesn't believe we have to wait for peer-to-peer MMS to take off to help people use multimedia on their mobile devices. "Our customers start by downloading a cool screensaver for their color handset, like our animated goldfish or spinning globe. Then they realize that they can also send our images to friends with compatible handsets. The next step is high-quality multimedia composition toolkits - software that lets you customize our content to create your own presentations for mobile how-and-tell."

Multimedia composition tools that Florin and his partners plan to release are designed to give users a variety of content templates, easy ways to import their own photos and graphics, add clip-art, rubber stamps, or favorite phrases, and send their creations to any MMS-enabled handset.

Will "mobile show and tell" become as common on the streets of Helsinki or Tokyo as flocking, texting teenagers were in the SMS era? Will venture capitalists be confronted in elevators by PowerPoint on a Palm? As high-resolution color screens, enhanced sound capabilities, and broadband wireless become more widely available, the people who adopt or ignore MMS will have the last and most important word.

With a background in technology writing, Howard Rheingold is the world's foremost authority on virtual communities. His 1988 article in Whole Earth Review, titled "Virtual Communities," contained the first-ever published reference to the concept. His 1993 book, The Virtual Community, was the first work on the phenomenon of social communication in cyberspace.

Howard served as an online host for the Well since 1985, and sat on the Well Board of Directors. In 1994, he was the founding Executive Editor of HotWired, the first commercial webzine with a virtual community known as Threads. He now runs a private community, Brainstorms.