One couldnt help but think last summer as the first camera-equipped mobile phones began appearing in shops, “here we go again”. The mobile industry worldwide, experiencing slowing growth from the boom years, stung by massive bets on 3G, and struggling to create so-called m-commerce services, was rolling the dice again, this time with even more expensive hardware. Companies were once again trying to take a service that has success in Japan to the US and Europe. They were either going to have to pass the cost of MMS-enabled phones to consumers, or subsidize equipment and pray they made up the cost on services. Not surprisingly, most operators did both, in that order.
Until now, one of the principal problems for MMS services has been the so-called “fax effect.” An MMS-enabled phone is only useful when the receiver of the message also has one. If none of your friends have MMS-capable phones, having a picture of a beautiful sunset on Cyprus isnt much use. And having all of your friends gather around a tiny phone screen to see your vacation snaps after you get back is hardly the way to spend a Friday night (though, unfortunately, I have seen it done).
MMS phones are steadily making their way into the market, thanks to more attractive upgrade deals being offered by operators, and handset manufacturers are applying the lifestyle-into-design mentality Nokia pioneered to make camera-phones cute, not overly-techie. Also, MMS roaming availability is expanding, a must-have in geographically fragmented areas such as Europe and Asia.
Enter the clever folks at NewBay Software, an Irish software firm, and their FoneBlog software. Introduced at the beginning of 2003, FoneBlog allows MMS users to do something with all those snaps – post them to a blog-like Web site of their very own, first with short SMS-based captions (or frighteningly, with audio clips), but open to follow up and flexible design via PC.
Available to operators either as a standalone application or as an ASP-based service, FoneBlog aims to give the rising number of MMS users a place to put their pictures, tell their stories, and share their views. It does so, however, without necessarily requiring the users to have a PC from which to sharpen their blog.
FoneBlog is in idea that could solve some of the key problems with MMS. Unlike SMS, where text messages have no need for persistence, MMS thrives on persistence of message. Why take a photo if you ultimately have to dump it when your phones memory fills up? By firing a picture over to a blog, users can capture the moment and the thought, and alert others to the posting.
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Furthermore, FoneBlog allows users to personalize their expression in a richer way than can be achieved purely with a mobile phone. Also critical is ease of use. Service subscribers merely post to an address or number, without having to become embroiled in Web site design or other technical issues that a PC-based blog would present. However, such design is open to users should they prefer, and the nature of blogs allows users to drop into an Internet café for a quick 15-minute clean up of their site, if desired.
From the all-important operators point of view, a number of must-haves are achieved with relatively little fuss. First, having the virtual equivalent of thousands of customers “shoeboxes” of photos stored raises barriers to exist, and increases stickiness of services. Billing for services, expected to target the €2-€5 per month range, can be posted to the mobile bill. Equally as important is ease of provision. Under NewBays model, operators can throw the switch and cut on phone blog Web addresses for all customers pretty easily, putting the service under the nose of users, rather than dragging them to set it up themselves – a must-have if take-up is to be stimulated.
While SMS and MMS services in the U.S. have not taken off with a bang, social and technological trends in Europe make it a prime market for FoneBlog-like applications. The concentration of personal IT spending around mobile phones in Europe, and not PC-based Internet or digital cameras, has firmly fixed the mobile as the long-term platform of choice among the key MMS demographic: the youth market.
Additionally, young Europeans, if one can generalize so, are taking a few leaves from their American and Japanese counterparts – sharing information and carrying on social activities via mobile phones almost as intensively as Japanese youth, but becoming more self-promotional as their American counterparts are. Phone blogging allows both, and with the proper model, can drive the creation of the type of personal portals that ISPs envisioned in the late 90s, but that proved elusive due to lower PC penetration among this more communicative demographic.
Communities of interest, strong on a social level but not as well developed in the Web sense as among their older, PC-owning counterparts, can be developed online via phone blogging as well. Again, without having to own a PC, users can start their own sites about favorite pop stars (imagine the star-spotting potential), sports teams, or political issues. Personal reportage, in effect, really goes mobile, and is available to the masses.
With summer coming, opportunities for stimulating promotional use abound. With music festivals, outdoor clubbing, and sun-soaked getaways always in vogue for the European summertime, photo competitions, personal journals, location and event reviews all set the stage for a potential blogging bonanza. However, that opportunity needs lead time to develop, and so far only a few operators in Europe are offering any good toys to use MMS for, let alone a convergence application like blogging by phone.
Scott Smith is Managing Partner of Cumulus Research Partners, a London consulting firm that specializes in helping companies understand the social impact of new technologies.