Camera phone photos get wider audience

Sprint, T-Mobile allow each other's customers to exchange multimedia messages. Cingular strikes similar deals with other carriers.

U.S. cell phone operators are slowly dismantling the barrier that has kept camera phone owners from sending multimedia missives to subscribers using different carriers.

The latest to dispose of the "walled garden" approach to their photo-messaging services are No. 3 operator Sprint and No. 4 T-Mobile USA, according to a statement from both companies.

Starting Thursday, those operators' subscribers could swap messages that include photos and videos. Technology from networking specialist VeriSign makes it possible.

Also on Thursday, No. 1 U.S. operator Cingular Wireless said it has reached similar message-exchange agreements with Sprint, T-Mobile, Leap Wireless and US Cellular.

Earlier, Cingular had struck an agreement with No. 2 carrier Verizon Wireless allowing their subscribers to send mixed-media messages to each other.

The deal-making has furthered progress toward the ultimate goal of allowing anyone with a camera phone to send photos or video snippets to any other camera phone, regardless of which carrier is servicing the phones. The existing walled-garden approach to such services has hampered growth of the market for photo messaging--a vital revenue source for operators--and has generated complaints from the growing number of camera phone owners.

"We continue to believe that walled- and walled-like garden strategies are unsustainable for mobile operators in the medium to long term," Rutberg & Co. Research analysts wrote to clients last month. "In the United States, we anticipate increased openness from mobile operators."

The operators' original goal was to have these message-exchange services in place by fall 2004. But the effort has proved more difficult than anticipated. Cell phone service providers rushed into picture messaging even though network equipment providers hadn't yet settled on a standard for an MMS (mixed-media message service) center, which serves as a carrier's clearinghouse to process photo or video messages. It's here that much of the heavy lifting is done, including identification of the message recipient's handset and adjustments to the size of the picture or the speed of the video to accommodate the handset's capabilities.

Handset makers add to the interoperability problems by making phones with different formatting features, screen sizes, processing capabilities and image resolution. As a result, MMS has to be tailored carefully so that signals from one phone don't overwhelm another.

But as indicated by Thursday's announcement between T-Mobile and Sprint, these difficulties are being overcome.

"People simply want to communicate with their friends and family," Michael Galleli, T-Mobile USA product management director, said in a statement. "They don't know or care what wireless service their friend has, they just want the message to arrive."

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