Half of UK’s mobiles ‘go online’

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Multimedia mobile phones are finally showing signs of taking off, with more Britons using them to go online.

Figures from industry monitor, the Mobile Data Association (MDA), show the number of phones with GPRS and MMS technology has doubled since last year.

GPRS lets people browse the web, access news services, mobile music and other applications like mobile chat.

By the end of 2005, the MDA predicts that 75% of all mobiles in the UK will be able to access the net via GPRS.

The MDA say the figures for the three months up to 30 September are a “rapid increase” on the figure for the same time the previous year.

About 53 million people own a mobile in the UK, so the figures mean that half of those phones use GPRS.

GPRS is often described as 2.5G technology – 2.5 generation – sitting between 2G and 3G technology, which is like a fast, high-quality broadband internet for phones.

With more services being offered by mobile operators, people are finding more reasons to go online via their mobile.

Downloadable ringtones are still proving highly popular, but so is mobile chat.

BandAid was the fastest ever-selling ringtone this year, according to the MDA, and chat was given some publicity when Prime Minister Tony Blair answered questions through mobile text chat.

Multimedia messaging services also looked brighter with 32% of all mobiles in the UK able to send or receive picture messages. This is a 14% rise from last September’s figures.

But a recent report from Continental Research reflects the continuing battle mobile companies have to actually persuade people to go online and to use MMS.

It said that 36% of UK camera phone users had never sent a multimedia message, or MMS. That was 7% more than in 2003.

Mobile companies are keen for people to use multimedia functions their phones, like sending MMS and going online, as this generates more money for them.

But critics say that MMS is confusing and some mobiles are too difficult to use. There have also been some issues over interoperability, and being able to send MMS form a mobile using one network to a different one.

 

Mobile multimedia slow to catch on

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There is no doubt that mobile phones sporting cameras and colour screens are hugely popular.

Consumers swapping old phones for slinkier, dinkier versions are thought to be responsible for a 26% increase in the number of phones sold during the third quarter of 2004, according to analysts Gartner

More than 167 million handsets were sold globally between July and September 2004, a period that, according to Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi is “seldom strong”.

But although consumers have mobiles that can take and send snaps, sounds and video clips few, so far, are taking the chance to do so.

In fact, the numbers of people not taking and sending pictures, audio and video is growing.

Figures gathered by Continental Research shows that 36% of British camera phone users have never sent a multimedia message (MMS), up from 7% in 2003.

This is despite the fact that, during the same period, the numbers of camera phones in the UK more than doubled to 7.5 million.

Getting mobile phone users to send multimedia messages is really important for operators keen to squeeze more cash out of their customers and offset the cost of subsidising the handsets people are buying.

The problem they face, said Shailendra Jain, head of MMS firm Adamind, is educating people in how to send the multimedia messages using their funky handsets.

“Also,” he said, “they have to simplify the interface so its not rocket science in terms of someone understanding it.”

Research bears out the suspicion that people are not sending multimedia messages because they do not know how to. According to Continental Research, 29% of the people it questioned said they were technophobes that tended to shy away from innovation. Only 11% regarded themselves as technically savvy enough to send a picture or video message.

The fact that multimedia services are not interoperable across networks and phones only adds to people’s reluctance to start sending them, said Mr Jain.

“They ask themselves: ‘If I’m streaming video from one handset to another will it work?'” he said. “There’s a lot of user apprehension about that.”

There are other deeper technical reasons why multimedia messages are not being pushed as strongly as they might.

Andrew Bud, executive chairman of messaging firm Mblox, said mobile phone operators cap the number of messages that can be circulating at any one time for fear of overwhelming the system.

“The rate we can send MMS into the mobile network is fairly constant,” he said.

The reason for this is that there are finite capacities for data traffic on the second generation networks that currently have the most users.

No-one wants to take the risk of swamping these relatively narrow channels so the number of MMS messages is capped, said Mr Bud.

This has led to operators finding other technologies, particularly one known as Wap-push, to get multimedia to their customers. But when networks do find a good way to get multimedia to their customers, the results can be dramatic.

Israeli technology firm Celltick has found a way to broadcast data across phone networks in a way that does not overwhelm existing bandwidth.

One of the first firms to use the Celltick service is Hutch India, the largest mobile firm in the country. The broadcast system gets multimedia to customers via a rolling menu far faster than would be possible with other systems.

While not multimedia messaging, such a system gets people used to seeing their phones as a device that can handle all different types of content. As a result 40% of the subscribers to the Hutch Alive, which uses Celltick’s broadcast technology, regularly click for more pictures, sounds and images from the operator.

“Operators really need to start utilising this tool to reach their customers,” said Yaron Toren, spokesman for Celltick.

Until then, multimedia will be a message that is not getting through.

 

Orange 3G phones launched in UK

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Telecoms group Orange has unveiled its third-generation (3G) mobile phones in the UK after a long-delayed commercial launch.

The French-owned firm’s move comes almost one month after its arch-rival Vodafone began selling 10 new 3G handsets across 13 countries.

Orange said its shops were offering four models in the UK and promised to expand that to six in the coming weeks

“This is just the start of the 3G evolution,” Orange said.

The launch is being backed by a similar marketing campaign to Vodafone’s, with a budget of around £12m which aims to attract up to two million 3G customers by the end of December 2006.

Orange UK hopes to lure customers by undercutting Vodafone whilst equalling deals offered by video phone pioneer ‘3’, which was the first to launch 3G services in the UK in March 2003.

With the new phones, customers will have access to video calls and clips, movie clips, ring tones, music downloads, film trailers, email and fast mobile internet access.

Handsets will cost from nothing to £199.99 depending on the tariff and the contract. The 3G option will cost from £30 a month for contract customers who sign up before the end of January. Handsets offered by Orange have been manufactured by LG Electronics, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and Sanyo Electric.

Orange’s 3G service will be integrated with the existing 2G network, so there will be no loss of signal outside of a 3G area when making an ordinary call. Orange claims its 3G network covers 70% of the UK population.

However, consumer magazine Which? last week advised people not to upgrade to a 3G phone. It said that UK network coverage for 3G is too limited to make the cost of the phones worthwhile.

Which? said phone users should stick to existing handsets until 3G coverage improves outside big cities.

3G phones ‘bad value’ says Which?

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Consumer group Which? has recommended that people do not buy third generation (3G) mobiles, which can be used for video calls.

Its report says that UK network coverage for 3G is too limited to make the cost of the phones worthwhile. Phone users should stick to existing handsets until 3G coverage improves outside big cities, Which? says.

But 3G firm Hutchison said it covered 80% of the UK population and accused Which? of “a lack of understanding”.

Four years ago, mobile phone networks invested £22bn in the 3G licences.

Hutchison launched its “3” service in Britain last year, while Vodafone followed suit last month. Two further competitors, Orange and T-Mobile, are expected to launch by the end of the year.

O2 has yet to confirm its 3G policy, although it recently announced that it would adopt the iMode service developed by Japan’s NTT Docomo and now the backbone of that company’s 3G offering.

Firms were hoping to claw back some of their investment in the technology in the run-up to Christmas.

Vodafone’s 3G services can only be accessed by 60% of the British population at the moment, although it has pledged to increase this to 80% by 2007. Meanwhile, Hutchison says its 3 network covers 80% of the population.

“There are teething problems with 3G phones and coverage so we recommend sticking with a 2G phone for the time being,” Malcolm Coles of Which? said. “We’ll be keeping an eye over the coming months to see if they, and the networks, live up to their hype.”

Which? also describes some of the 3G handsets as “bulky”.

But Edward Brewster, head of external relations at 3 Mobile, accused Which? of a “lack of understanding” of the market. He said: “On 3 Mobile, 80% of the British public can access our 3G video mobile services, that’s 48 million – around 12 million more than our nearest competitor. And 99% can access our voice services and in ever increasing numbers.”

Which? was also “mistaken” on the issue of quality and size of 3G handsets with the lightest weighing in at 114g and offering increased functionality, he added.

Vodafone has also questioned the findings of Which?. “In terms of our coverage, we obviously haven’t just thrown a network together,” spokesman Ben Taylor said. “Our coverage reflects the areas where we know people are most likely to use new types of service. At the first go, we’re hitting a large amount of customers and we will continue to roll out the services.”

It was “unfortunate” Which? had not had the chance to review Vodafone handsets because they had not been available when the study was made, he said. “We believe our handsets address the criticisms made by Which?. The handsets are slick and small with long battery lives.”

Mobile phone sales still booming

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New handsets helped Samsung overtake Motorola as the world’s second most popular mobile phone brand between July and September, research has found.

The market share of the world’s biggest handset maker, Nokia, also recovered to 30.9% from 29.7% in the second quarter.

Nokia still sells more than double the amount of rivals, but its market share remains below levels of a year ago.

Gartner found worldwide handset sales rose 26% to 167 million in the quarter – with all companies seeing increases.

South Korea’s Samsung had a 13.8% share of the market in the third quarter, compared with 11.2% last year.

Motorola’s share slipped to 13.4% from 14.7% but Gartner said the US firm should benefit from new product launches in the run up to Christmas.

Samsung saw its market share rise as it released new fold-away camera phones with data features, as well as cheaper models in new markets, including China.

Gartner said Nokia regained ground after two consecutive quarters of declining sales.

The firm launched its first mass-market clamshell handsets in the period.

“New handset models and decreasing prices fuelled replacement sales in mature markets such as Western Europe and North America,” said Carolina Milanesi from Gartner.

“In Asia, Central Europe and the Middle East, emerging markets continued to add new subscribers.”

The only area to see a sales drop in the quarter, compared with 2003, was Japan.

Consumers there generally get to see new technology before the rest of the world.

New camera phones had driven sales in Japan last year, Gartner said.