Mobile Messaging: Part II - The MMS Conundrum

Analysts agree that multimedia messaging has been something of disappointment, but disagree as why or where its future lay.
For mobile carriers, it sounded like a can't-miss proposition. Flood the market with inexpensive, heavily subsidized camera phones, launch Multimedia Message Service (MMS) and wait for subscribers to start sending pictures over the network with the same abandon they send text messages. Except it didn't quite work out that way.

In this second in our multi-part series on mobile messaging, we take a closer look at MMS and related services and capabilities. MMS has mainly been identified with picture messaging, but there are other possibilities, including video messaging, instant voice messaging, one-to-many multimedia carrier promotions and so on. Specific applications include everything from sending pictures of yourself to on-the-fly dating services to real estate agents sending clients pictures of newly listed properties.

Most analysts are in agreement that MMS has been a disappointment, but not about why or about how disappointing. JupiterResearch takes a fairly bleak view. According to senior wireless analyst Julie Ask, only 6 percent of U.S. subscribers, or about 12 million people, used MMS in 2005. Jupiter believes 21 percent of subscribers - about 52.5 million - will be using these services by 2010.

In-Stat's principal analyst for wireless applications, David Chamberlain, calls his firm's take on MMS progress "pessimistic," yet its May 2005 report, "Mobile Messaging: More Products, More Growth," shows a somewhat brighter picture than Jupiter paints. In-Stat predicted that 21 million mobile subscribers in the U.S. would use MMS in 2005, rising to 112 million by 2009.

And the U.S. lags other markets. According to the report, 44 million European and 85 million Asia/Pacific subscribers would use MMS in 2005, rising to 177 million in Europe and 201 million in Asia/Pacific by 2009.

IDC, meanwhile, in an October 2005 report, pegged annual carrier revenues from MMS in the U.S. at just under $150 million for 2004. It was forecasting almost $290 million in revenues in 2005 and about $3.5 billion by 2009.

These numbers are by no means an unmitigated disaster, but carriers expected a faster ramp-up. Why didn't they get it? A bunch of factors conspired to hold MMS back. Some of them continue to be a drag.

The most obvious is that not everybody has phones capable of sending or receiving MMS messages. James Colby, chief marketing officer at Comverse Americas, which provides carrier messaging service and billing platforms, estimates that only 40 percent of the phones in use worldwide have MMS capabilities. However, now that almost all new consumer phones have cameras, that number is growing by about 20 percent a year, he says.

Colby's company is also working on smoothing the user experience in situations where a subscriber with an MMS-capable phone tries to send a multimedia message to a phone that can't handle the multimedia content. In that situation now, the message or at the very least the multimedia content is lost. The intelligent messaging platform Comverse is developing would deliver the text portion and put the multimedia content in a message store for later retrieval from a computer or MMS-capable phone.

The new Comverse messaging solution will also provide an integrated user interface that consolidates all messaging - SMS, MMS, e-mail, IM - in one application. "We call it total communications," Colby says. "It will make messaging services more useable, and generate more revenues for carriers."

Not surprisingly, Comverse is bullish on MMS compared to the analysts. "It's clear that picture messaging volumes are never going to meet or exceed basic text messaging," Colby says. "The typical user now sends maybe three or four text messages a day. There are orders of magnitude still between that and MMS. But the gap will be closed. Eventually I think you'll see a ratio of more like 1:8 (i.e. one MMS message sent for every eight text messages)."

Interoperability
Some analysts say another key hold-back for MMS until last year was the lack of interoperability among carriers. That has now been resolved for the most part. Bilateral agreements signed between top U.S. and Canadian carriers in 2005 mean that, with few exceptions, North American subscribers can send MMS messages to any other mobile user anywhere on the continent.

They still can't, in most cases, send multimedia messages to overseas subscribers, though - or vice versa. Colby confirms that messages he sends from the U.S. to his native Britain sometimes simply don't arrive. "That gap still needs to be closed," he says.

But interoperability may not be the panacea it was for SMS, Chamberlain warns. With SMS, there was a direct and exponential impact on message traffic as a result of increasing the universe of possible recipients. MMS is different because there are now other ways to send pictures from phones - e-mail them as attachments, for example - and other things you can do with pictures and videos created with a camera phone, such as download them to a computer or print them from a memory card.

"I think people have started recognizing interoperability as a bit of a red herring (for MMS)," Chamberlain says. "Yes, it's nice, and you might see some increases in traffic as a result, but I just don't see it driving traffic in the way it did with SMS."

Cost
Pricing of MMS was also prohibitive initially. It's still a disincentive in some cases, but carriers have begun to follow the suggestions of platform vendors such as Comverse and drop prices. Colby mentions T-Mobile in particular, which last year introduced a simplified rate plan that in effect prices MMS and SMS messages at par. Subscribers can buy buckets of messages (sent or received) per month - 400 for $4.99, 1,000 for $9.99 and unlimited for $14.99. They could be all text messages or all MMS or any mix.

"Since the delta in pricing (between MMS and SMS) has begun to close, adoption levels have risen dramatically," Colby claims. "We've seen a tremendous increase in traffic in the last six to nine months as a result."

But Chamberlain says that in extensive surveys he did with end users on the subject of picture messaging, pricing ranked number three in their list of reasons why they didn't use MMS or didn't use it more. "That's not to say (cost) is negligible (as a reason), but it's not as important as other things," he says. Such as?

Once Bitten, Twice Shy
The first objection, he says, was quality of pictures. Early camera phones featured poor-quality, fixed-focus and fixed focal length lenses and low-resolution (typically 640x480-pixel) sensors. Quality has improved, Chamberlain notes. Many new camera phones have 1-megapixel (MP) or better sensors. A few have 2 MP sensors and auto focus zoom lenses. But the damage has been done.

Users who were disappointed by the quality from their first-generation camera phone likely won't upgrade anytime soon. "Once burned, twice shy," Chamberlain says. Also, higher-resolution sensors mean picture files are bigger so they now take longer to send, which is another disincentive - although the spread of 3G networks will eventually eliminate that problem, Chamberlain concedes.

The second most often-cited reason for not using MMS in the In-Stat survey: the difficulty of actually sending messages, and the fact that it was hit and miss whether they were received as sent.

Usability
Ease of use is beginning to improve, Chamberlain says. He points to applications such as Sprint's Yahoo! Go Mobile - currently available only on the Nokia 6682 phone - as an example. Every time the user takes a picture, the application invites him to send it in an MMS to Yahoo Photos (an online photo display) account, and sends it immediately on a single-click response.

"Those kinds of things will ease the usability issues (subscribers have)," Chamberlain says. "Carriers are looking at starting to build that kind of functionality into their (user interfaces), and that could help increase (MMS) traffic."

Colby sees some new applications - which his company's products enable - boosting MMS usage levels, though they're not pure MMS applications. Peer-to-peer voice messaging is an example. When a caller can't get through to you and leaves a voice message, the P2P system pushes the message to you as an MMS. Colby says the majority of tier one carriers in the U.S. are currently replacing older proprietary messaging platforms with new open IP platforms that will enable this kind of functionality.

"Europe is a year or so ahead," he says. "We've rolled out somewhere in the region of 12 to 15 customers there."

Push e-mail on the RIM BlackBerry model, another application Comverse is working on, could also boost MMS traffic, with multimedia e-mail attachments arriving as MMS messages. "We believe e-mail to MMS will be a hot item," Colby says.

MMS in general has decidedly not been a hot item to date. Colby and others may be right that new faster networks that make it easier to send and receive multimedia messages, new applications, better handsets and better handset user interfaces will conspire to boost multimedia traffic on mobile networks. But it's no slam dunk.

This article was first published on PDAStreet.com.






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