For mobile operators, multimedia messaging service (MMS) held the promise of added revenue and additional sticky services to reduce churn.
For customers, the idea of sending Grandma a picture of Junior’s first baby steps at the park via mobile phone was huge. Subscribers would be able to deliver a personalized voice message to a friend traveling in Asia without the phone ringing at 3 a.m. The possibilities were tantalizing.
Sounds like a sure-fire recipe for success, right?
Not quite. A funny thing happened to MMS on its way to the debutante ball. Mobile operators failed to apply some crucial lessons learned from launch and widespread adoption of SMS. That oversight, along with current operator behavior, is slowing MMS adoption in many markets, putting MMS on a track to the museum of underperforming technologies (read: intelligent network, IP multimedia subsystem). There’s still time, but operators need to act quickly to solve the interoperability and pricing issues that have to date caused MMS to fall well below initial expectations.
WRITING ON THE WALL
Mobile operators and mobile equipment vendors were surprised when text messaging (based on SMS) took off. SMS was part of the original global system for mobile communication (GSM) design but was never envisioned as a major service by itself. However, once text messaging rocketed to global popularity, a multimedia extension made perfect sense.
Unfortunately, mobile operators appear to have missed some obvious lessons from the SMS explosion. First, the actual text messaging explosion only occurred after there was national interoperability in country after country. In other words, people wanted to communicate but they needed to know that it would work. If you can send a message to any phone number, and the service is useful or less expensive, you may try it. But if you can only send a message to another person who uses the same service provider or only to people with a specific handset models or special service plans, why try it at all? There are two issues here.
First, it’s human nature to avoid things that take extra thought, which is why people pay more for flat-rate bundles of messages. If all your friends have mobile phones, but only some of them can be reached with a new messaging service, it’s an extra uncertainty that causes most people to punt. Second, the viral spread of any new service is far more effective than any marketing campaign, but viral adoption requires that messages get passed as widely as possible. Again, if you can only communicate with a few people, there will be no viral spread.
MMS VITAL SIGNS
Because there are many kinds of multimedia messages today, there is confusion about service brands and service functions. Actual services based on MMS include picture mail, voice SMS and video messaging. Unlike text messaging, not all phones can receive all messages. Especially with video messaging, there are differences in screen resolution and available video codecs. This means you may not know whether the other party will be able to receive your message.
Moreover, some operators seem to make things difficult for subscribers. In the Philippines, MMS services don’t work until a subscriber registers a handset with the operator’s MMS equipment.
While registration is easy, only half the people with MMS-capable handsets have enabled MMS. This makes no sense. All subscribers should be enabled if you expect to get a service adopted.
Worse still is the fact that MMS-based services only work on specific operator networks in many countries. In the United States, Sprint offers a voice SMS service, but stymies its adoption because it only works with other Sprint subscribers and only those that have a specific kind of handset and only those who have signed up for the service. The result? Virtually no one uses the service.
Operators in more than two dozen countries have circumvented interoperability hurdles for voice SMS services by basing them not on MMS, but on a combination of SMS and voice telephony. The resulting service works with any handset and any network. These services are doing very well, while MMS-based voice SMS services are, so far, a failure.
Smart pricing is another lesson operators should learn from SMS’ success. Text message adoption was facilitated by low prices, especially at introduction. In most countries, an SMS message costs less than a 1-minute voice call. In the Philippines, SMS messages were actually free until they were well on the way to popularity. When charging began, messages still cost less than a 1-minute voice call. SMS in the Philippines is worthy of attention as, today, the Philippines has the highest per-person use of SMS in the world.
So it’s pretty clear what operators could do to foster MMS-based services. First, enable every handset and interoperate with every network. Second, start with low rates (and free promotional packages) until you build a user base and can understand what people are willing to pay.
This seems straightforward, but operators are missing the boat and time is running out. 3G mobile Internet access is growing quickly around the world. Once people have fast, affordable access to the public Internet, it’s unlikely mobile operators will be able to compete with Internet companies for new person-to-person services. MMS will be dead if its services haven’t gained global traction by then.
Turner is co-founder, senior vice president and CTO of NMS Communications.