Mobile messaging gets messy


Mobile phone firms hoping that multimedia messaging will provide a much needed revenue boost, could be disappointed.

Experts fear that technical problems and high costs could deter people from sending the new messages and stop companies using them to advertise brands.

Text message veterans also warn that it could take a long time for the new messages to be used in large numbers because they are more complex to create, use and charge for.

The news comes as Vodafone unveils its multimedia messaging service and all operators start a marketing push to convince customers to convert.

The Vodafone Live! multimedia messaging service is free until February 2003 in an attempt to drive people to try and experiment with it.

The Live! portal holding downloadable ringtones, games and images is reached by opening a bookmark installed on the phone.

“The big lesson we have learned is that it must be easy to use,” said Gavin Darby, chief executive of Vodafone UK.

He said everyone was keen to avoid repeating the mistakes of Wap which was widely over-promoted by operators.

To get at the portal customers, either contract or pre-pay, must upgrade to one of three camera phones; the Nokia 7650, Panasonic GD87 or the Sharp GX10.

Mr Darby said Vodafone had 30 launch partners providing downloads for its portal and hoped to have another 70 signed up by Christmas.

Once the free period ends customers could find that multimedia messaging and services prove expensive. Polyphonic ringtones start at £2.50 each and some games cost up to £5. Customers must also buy a bundle of data so they can browse the Live! site.

But the mobile operators rosy hopes for MMS could be tarnished by a survey showing that people become increasingly reluctant to upgrade their handsets.

The research by J.D Power and Associates shows that renewal periods for handsets are gradually creeping upwards.

The survey found that consumers are updating handsets every 18 months, meaning any wholesale change to MMS capable phones is going to take time to reach a mass market.

There is also doubt over how quickly MMS will be taken up by companies.

Analysis by Benchmark Research found that the cost associated with MMS marketing campaigns, which could involve music, images, movies, small programs and dedicated games, could deter many companies.

“The barriers to entry are quite a bit higher with multimedia messages,” said Gary Corbett, managing director of text message marketing company Opera Telecom which commissioned the analysis from Benchmark Research.

Benchmark also noted that few companies are going to spend time courting MMS users until the numbers using it grow substantially. Many are likely to stick with text messaging because they know it can reach almost all handsets.

“Even in three years time I expect the bulk of applications and messages to still be SMS,” said Mr Corbett.

Text messages are still proving enormously popular. Now more than 1 billion per month are sent in the UK alone. Much of this continued growth is due to the increasing use of text messages by companies keen to market their good and services to groups of consumers.

Mr Corbett said another brake on adoption was the fact that MMS messages cannot currently be sent across networks, limiting the chance that consumers or companies would use them.

Text marketing companies also cannot currently get access to the messaging centres operated by the networks further limiting the opportunities to use these sound and picture messages for any advertising campaign.