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Mobile multimedia e-mail gets a unified front

The world's top four handset sellers announce an initiative designed to spur interest in adding videos, pictures and sound files to e-mail messages traded on wireless devices.

The world's top four handset sellers on Tuesday will announce an initiative designed to spur interest in adding videos, pictures and sound files to e-mail messages traded on wireless devices.

Nokia, Siemens, Motorola and Ericsson will jointly tout "multimedia messaging," or MMS, with the intent of developing a standard for the service, according to Peter Bodor, a spokesman for Ericsson.

By presenting a unified front, wireless telephone makers hope to motivate software developers and carriers to create applications and sell phones capable of sending and receiving multimedia messages, Bodor said. Market watchers believe these wireless multimedia messages will make their commercial debut in 2003.

MMS refers to what many in the industry consider the next generation of wireless e-mail. The first generation has consisted of text messages. The second generation allows users to send small files, such as icons or ring tones. But later, advanced MMS services will allow wireless e-mail containing bigger files of all sorts of media, like video or sound, proponents say.

These large files could help boost wireless Internet usage, and turn profits for wireless carriers. But the industry must first successfully ready the requisite high-speed mobile networks and then encourage consumers to rely on their wireless handsets for these advanced e-mail and Internet services.

The industry decided to come together after Nokia, Ericsson and the other handset sellers began their own separate MMS efforts, but with key differences in the software that makes the service run.

"The carriers were scratching their heads and thinking, this is going to be a nightmare," because different standards mean more expense and expertise, said Jupiter research fellow Seamus McAteer. "The carriers are basically saying to these guys that, 'You are making our lives hell. And the industry is suffering. Let's have agreement here.'"

But even with a unified front, other analysts say it will be years before MMS is widely used.

Abby Christopher, a communications industry analyst for market research firm Ovum, points out that cell phone owners are still trying to find a comfort level with things like the wireless Web, which is being offered now through cell phones but is slow to take off.

"Who, on a regular basis, is going to use this (MMS)? They'd be a little nutty," Christopher said. "It's a great way to communicate, but people are not necessarily coordinated in that way yet. It will take people time to get accustomed to it."

So far, only Ericsson has been able to successfully send an MMS message, in the confines of a laboratory. The Swedish handset maker also has developed an MMS-ready phone it plans to sell by year's end.

Despite the glum analyst forecasts, industry insiders say MMS already is likely on its way.

Susan Bidel, vice president of marketing for MessageVine, which makes a wireless instant messaging product, said MMS will be a natural evolution from the short messaging services that have caught fire in Europe. Short messaging, also known as SMS, is a brief message traded between cell phone users. Billions, up to 160 characters in length, are sent each month.

While SMS is hot in Europe, there are just three carriers in the United States that offer a short messaging service to their subscribers. Some admit that reluctance could delay the introduction of multimedia messages in the United States. "These are very cautious, conservative companies--they don't move quickly," Bidel said.