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Video revolution for text messages

May 9, 2002 Posted: 2:45 PM EDT (1845 GMT)

The shape of things to come? But there are hurdles ahead for video messaging  

By Pia Turunen

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Mobile phone companies are telling us to expect a revolution in text messaging.

Nearly one billion messages are sent in Europe every month. With a unique language, it took off in the late 1990s and has become almost as popular as voice calls.

Now texting, or SMS (short message service), is set to become dated as phone operators push ahead with new products. Waiting in the wings is multimedia messaging (MMS), which looks like a text message on steroids.

It allows users to send and receive messages with graphics, photos and audio and video clips. When it becomes widely available, you will be able to download payment vouchers, access banking services and watch movie previews.


Some analysts predict video messaging will begin to take off in Europe by the end of the year -- and that users will be prepared to pay more for it. With European mobile phone markets close to saturation, companies want to get more money out of existing customers.

But receiving video messages in Europe is currently hindered by the limitations of the so-called third generation (3G) networks, the upgraded mobile networks which allow text, pictures and voice data to be sent from phone to phone.

In most European countries these networks are in place but mobile operators, which paid billions of dollars for licences, are still waiting to fully launch services to customers. Some operators blame the lack of handsets on the market. Others are waiting until consumer confidence in mobile technologies grows.

Thiry percent of all European operators are launching their MMS service within the first half of 2002 with another 25 percent in the second half, according to research from the pan-European IT and telecommunications consultancy Forrester.

But so far only Telenor in Norway and Hungary's Westel have begun commercial multimedia messaging services over their networks. UK's Vodafone, Europe's biggest operator, says it plans to introduce its MMS service later this year, but will not specify a date.

Simon Buckingham, CEO of UK-based wireless application specialist Mobilestreams, says operators need to upgrade their networks substantially to get the technology to work. "MMS requires upgrades to current mobile networks and phones. In addition to implementing third generation networks, network operators need to install an MMSC (a MMS Centre), just like the SMS has. All this costs money. And consumers need to buy new phones which support MMS too."

The multimedia message is easy to use, according to operators. Westel says its 2.75 million subscribers can register to use the MMS service which is charged per message, with no separate subscription.

Higher costs

MMS uses more sophisticated methods than the plain text message, according to Timo Laaksonen, the CEO of Finnish mobile messaging company First Hop.

"When a subscriber receives an MMS message he or she actually only receives the notification of the incoming message. This notification contains the link to a wireless application protocol (WAP or wireless Internet) page. This page then makes a contact with multimedia messaging centre where the actual message is stored."

Those wishing to use the service will need to buy an MMS-enabled handset. Finland's Nokia, the world's largest manufacturer, predicts that MMS will be its primary revenue driver in the near future. "Most of our phones released in the market next year will be MMS enabled," said a spokeswoman.

But these turbo handsets will not come cheap. Nokia's only MMS phone, the 7650, retails at 550 euros ($500). And sending a message will cost about one euro (90 cents) -- a big leap from 0.17 euros (15 cents), the current average European price of a text message.

Telenor charges about 10 kronors (1.3 euros/$1.18) for each message. But Laaksonen says prices may be flexible. "The problem is that people will expect the MMS be priced near the same mark as SMS. But operators can always employ alternative pricing schemes, for instance they could charge per kilobyte or per size of the file received."

Even cynics in the mobile industry say video messages will become a hit among computer game fans, whose hunger for downloadable ring tones and logos seems insatiable.


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