MMS – following the pattern.

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Everyone recognises the pattern. A new technology is launched and generates excitement. Then comes the hype, quickly followed by disillusionment. Finally, for any technology with value, we discover how and where it provides useful solutions to real needs. It happened with the Internet and it happened with WAP. MMS (Multi-media Messaging Service) seems to be moving rapidly along the same path so the key question is – when do we get to the useful bit?

The excitement and hype associated with MMS were in full swing early last year with market analysts at Ovum forecasting that, by 2007, global MMS-related revenues will be worth up to US$70 billion and (citing Jupiter Research) predicting that the MMS market will be worth US$42 billion as early as 2005. These projections are understandable when one considers the market penetration of mobile phones and the remarkable success of SMS. Handset penetration is significantly higher than that of PCs and for some applications the target demographic is much easier to reach by phone.

But then came the bad press. Was it justified? Mark Fitzgerald, MX Telecom’s Managing Director, thinks so – for several reasons. He reports that reliability was a key problem; the interconnection between the different UK networks was terrible and the service was constrained by the need for the networks to conform to a low common denominator in terms of message size.

Many MMS compatible handsets were sold without being provisioned for the service and the inability for standard MMS applications to ‘know’ the characteristics of the end-user’s phone has led to problems with presenting images appropriately. Cost is another, well reported, issue that has hampered MMS adoption, with many content distributors believing that WAP push is a more economical option.

Nigel Shardlow, a director of Vanilla Internet and the former head of innovation and incubation at Orange UK recognises these well-documented issues and understands their origins. His view is that the network and content providers came under a lot of pressure to launch the technology and, as a result, with customer expectations set high, it was released before it had been properly thought through and integrated with all handsets.

In contrast he remembers, “SMS was quietly introduced as part of the GSM standard and wasn’t seen as a major selling point. End-users gradually became aware of its capabilities and grew to be comfortable with the technology.”

The useful phase?

So are we now approaching a period where these problems are being overcome and MMS can be employed reliably and usefully? Shardlow thinks so. “We should see a rapid increase in usage as people get properly configured handsets and when the problems of interoperability become a thing of the past.”

Most commentators agree with him that the technical barriers to using MMS are disappearing but it leaves the question as to where uptake in usage will come from, especially given the current pricing structures offered by the UK networks.

When considering this question, the unexpected success of text messaging overshadows the debate. SMS is a phenomenon of person-to-person communication and the initial focus upon MMS saw it as addressing the same need in a more exciting way. Many predicted it to rapidly replace SMS. Since those predictions were made, significant doubt about its value in this area has arisen.

Jo Flynn, an independent consultant who has worked on some of the advanced multi-media services at 3, states that “SMS is good for person-to-person messaging – it’s ‘fit-for-purpose’ and people don’t need anything more for most messages.” She believes that “It’s in the area of message-based mobile applications that MMS will start to compete. With the ability to distribute pictures of products, maps to local outlets, previews of movies or music releases. MMS has a powerful future in the area of corporate communications.”

Most interviewees agree with her that branded content is where MMS’s real strength lies and suggest that as marketers, content owners, and advertisers become aware of the potential of MMS we will see a rapid expansion in its commercial deployment. They will use it as a content delivery and promotional tool that complements and supports other forms of advertising. Roger Francis, Marketing Director of MakeMyShow predicts that, ”MMS will become a key delivery mechanism for certain applications, with WAP and WAP-push fulfilling other requirements. If the requirement is really about sending a message or alerting people, if mixed-media is required or sequencing important – MMS is the way to go!”

Francis reminds us that “most large companies have carefully developed their brand as an integrated mix of images, words, colours and even sounds” and goes on to conclude that “since MMS can combine all of these elements into fully branded mobile messages, it is a powerful medium for brand-building.”

He also feels that many of the technology’s teething problems have already been solved and that “a lot of the views expressed about it are ill-informed or out of date.’ He goes on to say “the level of MMS capable handsets is already much higher than people believe – virtually every phone with a colour screen- and we simply aren’t encountering cross-network delivery issues of the past, as long as we stick to the constraints imposed by the networks.”

In fact, Francis claims that some recent articles that are very negative about MMS are partly the result of misleading messages from companies that are unable to handle and manage the format properly.

Other options

But how does MMS compare to other methods of delivering content to phones, specifically WAP push? Flynn believes that the user experience is key and that “the end-user MMS experience is much better than with WAP push”. As she explains “MMS messages arrive in the same familiar way as SMS and are as easy to consume and keep, unlike WAP push where the alert is difficult to locate after you’ve used it once”. Even Fitzgerald, who is concerned that MMS content quality is not always as high as it should be, acknowledges the user-friendliness of its delivery mechanism.

Shardlow also emphasises the creative capabilities of MMS (exploiting mixed media, sequencing etc) but argues that the use of MMS as a promotional tool, say for signing up to receive various offers, has to be seen in context. He thinks that most people may still prefer to subscribe via email than MMS. Even so, he supports Francis’ view that MMS is or could be a powerful marketing tool – particularly if the content or the message is time-sensitive and personal to the customer. “The ability to ‘call-off’ an MMS whilst you’re away from a PC will become a really powerful method of enhancing advertising on posters, billboards, TV, radio, newspaper and magazine adverts, ambient adverts, etc.”

As Francis’ colleague Jeff Tupholme explains, “Messages can be made to vary according to the location from where they’ve been requested or the time of day. Simply put – ‘static’ advertising can be made to be interactive and where advertising space is limited or expensive, this is a simple way of making it work harder.”

When considering MMS as a promotional tool, it is also important to recognise its greater capacity that SMS gives it the ability to collate information from numerous sources into a unified message. This opens opportunities for organisations to sponsor messages, combine service offerings and collate sets of useful information. Both Shardlow and the more MMS-sceptical Fitzgerald agree that this is an area where MMS is strong.

Shardlow goes on to add the observation that “WAP push sends you off to other mobile content via a WAP session. There is no reason why you can’t embed links into MMS and SMS messages so that you get a taster of what you might be seeing in the WAP session, without initiating the session itself. It is more comfortable for a user to go to WAP from an MMS session, but it is easier for content owners to drive the user to their content via WAP Push.” Whilst the latter may sound attractive, consumers typically respond well to a feeling of control over how they consume content or utilize a product or service.

Francis definitely sees room for both technologies, “There may be network restrictions in delivering static content like ring tones or Java downloads via MMS and these items are probably better suited to WAP Push anyway. Basically, it’s ‘horses for courses’ and if the application is related to dynamic alerting and messaging – MMS is better in my opinion.”

All commentators add a clear proviso about unscrupulous delivery of MMS spam degrading attitudes to the medium. The ubiquity of mobile phones brings with it the sense of it being a ‘personal’ device and intolerance of Spam is probably higher here that with email. The challenge, as always, is to ensure that the content is rich and relevant to the user and that they only receive messages they want.

So, where do we stand?

Nigel Shardlow reminds us, “It took 6-7 years for SMS to become a mass-market technology. With MMS only having been around for 3-4 years. It will be a couple of years before MMS reaches critical mass within the market”

The others and add the proviso that it will only happen if the networks solve the remaining technical and infrastructural problems, we see competitive pricing and MMS service providers focus upon the creation of personalised, value-driven and targeted content.

It appears however that, despite the teething problems, MMS has some clear advantages over other methods of delivering content to mobile phones. These advantages, combined with the sociological drive to greater mobility and the technological drive to device convergence, means that MMS would seem to have a far brighter future than many recent articles imply.

Edited by Graham Jarvis

Editor and media services consultant
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