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Can MMS ever match the success of SMS?

In the current T-Mobile ad, Steffi Graf is trying to find her playful husband Andre Agassi. Rather than simply calling him, she tracks down him by sending a lengthy series of photo messages. This odd behaviour raises a key question about MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) -- is it Wap mark two, a technology looking for an application? asks Reuben Heller, communications strategist at Publicis NetWorks.

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Certainly, no one in the mobile industry can afford MMS to be considered a failure. For 3G to take off, operators must develop data-intensive applications, like MMS, that consumers and businesses use in droves. This is the only way to get Arpu (average revenue per user) up to the levels required to even begin to recoup the crippling 3G licence and infrastructure costs. If consumers don't want MMS, it will be difficult convince a sceptical stock market that they will ultimately want video conferencing, football highlights or any other 3G goodies.

Handset manufacturers and retailers are also banking on MMS to drive sales. For some time, the push in this market has been towards replacement handsets: pretty much everyone who wants a mobile phone already has one. People will only buy a new handset if it has compelling new features. Handsets can't really get much smaller; but MMS, colour screens and integrated cameras are genuinely new selling points. Expect a big sell for handsets like the Nokia 7650 this Christmas. MMS handsets, however, do look expensive now that cash-strapped operators can no longer afford huge subsidies.

So how will the industry tempt consumers to use MMS? There are three basic applications. Getting the most attention at the moment is "peer-to-peer" MMS. Instead of sending endless text messages, the belief is that we will all be sending each other photos with accompanying audio clips and text.

There is no need here to go over the reasons why SMS is so successful. Suffice to say, consumers will not adopt MMS with the same enthusiasm just because it is available. Most text messages are fairly mundane -- why send a photo of a grimy Connex carriage instead of the usual "I'm on the train"? Another problem is that text messaging volumes are driven by teenagers, who are least likely to be able to afford the new handsets and the increased bills that MMS requires. As ever, pricing is of critical importance and T-Mobile's £20 monthly fee looks like a mistake. Orange's charge of 40p a message is far more likely to get punters to experiment with MMS, the only way to get them hooked. Interoperability is also very important, and Orange expects to have this in place with at least one other network by Christmas.

Aside from peer-to-peer applications, MMS will also facilitate new forms of mobile entertainment. Snazzy new polyphonic ringtones and graphic icons are sure to be a winner. Consumers can also expect to receive, for a small fee, cartoons, jokes, graphic weather forecasts and the like. These kind of services are already available via SMS and will therefore only generate incremental revenues.

The industry is also seeking to whet the palette of advertisers. Why send a boring old text message to promote your product, when you can use colour, graphics and sound? Of course, consumers will not get new handsets just to get MMS ads. There is also a growing backlash against SMS advertising, fuelled by tabloid scare stories. This has arisen because no one has been able to prevent a few 'bad apples' flooding consumer's phones with irritating and misleading SMS spam. This inevitably casts a cloud over the prospects of any new form of mobile marketing.

At the moment, there is no "killer app" for MMS. Without compelling services, MMS will be a damp squib. Orange predicts that MMS handset penetration will reach 30%-50% by 2005. But owning an MMS handset doesn't mean using MMS services (Does your handset have Wap? Do you ever use it?). Maybe this pessimism is unjustified, and in a few years time we will all be frantically photo messaging one another, just like Steffi and Andre. But if MMS is a failure, the already shaky foundations of 3G will be fatally weakened.

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