MMS? Mmmm, I don't think so

I'm a bit concerned about the telecomms equipment manufacturers I've been talking to of late. They seem convinced the market will move to mobile data at the same rate it took up mobile voice. I'm not so sure it will.

I’m a bit concerned about the telecomms equipment manufacturers I’ve been talking to of late. They seem convinced the market will move to mobile data at the same rate it took up mobile voice. I’m not so sure it will.

Mobile voice has a number of advantages over fixed line voice. It’s personal – if you call my cellphone number you get me, or at least my voice mail. You don’t get my parents or my wife or my neighbour. It’s my personal extension, just like I have in the office. This is a service I find valuable enough to pay for at a price I’m willing to accept. I can take the phone number with me when I go out of the office or to another city or overseas. I’m in touch when I need to be.

But data is a different proposition. Unless your business demands you be in reach of your network from wherever you are, at all times, it’s not going to quite have the same appeal.

Sure, there are going to be users who want and need and are willing to pay for such connectivity (and I’m possibly one of them). But the vast majority of customers won’t want to because of price. I’m talking about the consumer end of the market, that side of the equation that the telcos seem happy to forget about a lot of the time. It was their take up of mobile voice that provided the astonishing growth that drove the network providers and equipment manufacturers into paroxysms of joy. Are consumers queuing up for mobile data capabilities? Somehow I can’t quite see it.

But they do use mobile data. It’s called SMS or text messaging, and the equipment manufacturers are all hyping its successor -- MMS, or multimedia messaging.

What does MMS do that SMS can’t? It can handle larger files – photos and sounds, to be precise. Apparently this will drive the consumers mad with desire and they will fight and kick and gouge each other to get their hands on it.

How mad? Nokia says the mobile market today is worth €350 billion but will bloom into a 800-billion industry by 2006 with mobile data onboard.

It really does depend on the price, of course, and Nokia is suggesting that the SMS model (a few coins each time) be applied, albeit at a higher price. Around three or four times the price of a normal SMS is what Nokia suggests; however, it is wary of networks demanding 10 or 20 times the price. That will stifle uptake, says the company.

I must say I’m sceptical. The idea of SMS messages is a simple, straightforward one that makes sense on many levels. Kids love it because they can muck about in class or after they’ve gone to bed and it has its own language. And it’s cheap. Adults are somewhat fond of it if only because they can get sports results fired at them whenever they desire.

Editors dislike it intensely because they get sore thumbs. Businesses can contact roaming staff in a manner similar to a pager service, so they’re keen. Will they go for photos and sound files in quite the same way? I can’t see it. Sure it’ll be fun, especially if your phone allows you to take photos, as some of the newer models allow. But really it will need a pretty smart developer to come up with an application for it before I’m sold.

Nokia suggests the usual answers to that question – real estate vendors taking photos of houses – but that’s hardly going to set the network fibre alight, is it? If Nokia can’t think of a good use for it, you have to wonder whether anyone will.

A good point, however, is that only Japan seems to have the content provider issue sorted out. In Japan, revenue from mobile content is shared with DoCoMo at around the 9% mark. In the rest of the world network operators apparently charge much more – anywhere from 12% to 50%. That’s stifling take-up in my opinion and could help explain why even now there are precious few SMS services I’ll pay for.

Brislen, IDGNet's reporter, talked mobile data in Singapore, where he was a guest of Nokia. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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