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Will 'moblogs' mean mo' money?

Instant online photo journals promise new demand for wireless data services, but privacy concerns loom.

Culture
Gena Creque is a camera phone marketer's dream.

Creque, a 23-year-old human resources director for a polling company in Melbourne, Fla., estimates she takes and posts to the Web an average of five digital pictures every day, regularly updating her personal mobile Web log, or "moblog."

"I love people," Creque says of her self-described moblogging addiction. "And this is a great way to schmooze. I'm a great big flirt."

While Creque and like-minded photo bloggers amuse themselves and each other with frequent, candid and often racy cell phone pictures, cell carriers and equipment manufacturers are avidly observing and in some cases moving in on the moblogging trend.

News.context

What's new:
More and more people are using their cell phones to create online photo journals, also called mobile Web logs, or 'moblogs,' for short.

Bottom line:
Cell phone makers and carriers are paying close attention to this trend, looking for ways to cash in. Carriers hope it will help offset the millions of dollars they've spent on upgrading their data networks. Meanwhile, privacy is also an issue.

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Although new cell phone models increasingly come with cameras attached, wireless companies with huge investments in new high-speed networks and fancy phones fear people won't find a corresponding new need to take pictures and send them--for a fee--over the wireless Internet.

"We're definitely looking at this," said Ritch Blasi, an AT&T Wireless spokesman. "You could take a picture and shoot it over to the laptop, but that does me no good because it doesn't use the network. The same way people don't think twice about making a phone call, you want to get them comfortable with how this is done and how much it's going to cost."

Cell phone plans vary in terms of how subscribers are charged for Internet access, but Blasi estimates that it costs 25 cents to send a picture over the network.

Consumer and cell company demand for moblogs has yielded opportunity for a number of start-ups including TextAmerica, Mobog, Buzznet and Ploggle.

TextAmerica, a photo-oriented blog site with international reach, said it signed a deal to license its technology to a top-five cell carrier.

The San Diego start-up, with a staff of five, introduced its service just over a year ago, and since then says it has amassed half a million registered users. About 20 percent of those upload pictures from their camera phones; the rest are there to watch and comment.

"Moblogging drives the adoption of camera phones," said Chris Hoar, a TextAmerica founder. "If you talk to Telecom Italia or Cingular or Sprint, their numbers don't add up. These networks cost a lot of money to maintain and they're subsidizing camera phones. Taking two images per month per user is not going to pay back your investment."

It's business and personal
Today, the most popular use of moblogs is personal. But analysts expect business applications, for instance, by real estate agents in hot markets where speed is essential in getting images of new properties to clients.

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Brian Cooley, CNET

Analysts agree that services like TextAmerica will interest cell carriers trying to get a return on their significant investments in high-bandwidth data networks and in subsidizing consumers' expensive and increasingly high-resolution camera phones.

The idea is that moblogs will both keep the novelty from wearing off cell phone photography and get subscribers like Creque to keep racking up online minutes on their monthly bills.

"Moblogs and cellular operators go together," said Alan Reiter, president of Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase, Md. "The cellular industry is spending billions of dollars worldwide to upgrade their networks to faster data rates, and there have to be some reasons to use those faster data rates. The industry is desperate to find applications that people will use."

Cell phone photography is not without its critics. It has come under fire by health clubs and other places where people now disrobe in the company of photographic devices. Those nervous about the use of cell phones in locker rooms won't be comforted by moblogging sites, some of which abound in nude candids.

Even TextAmerica, which proclaims itself a "family-oriented" site, doesn't entirely disavow the erotic character of some postings.

"I might not want my 5-year-old on the site," Hoar acknowledged. "It's risque at best."

One less sensational factor spurring the use of the moblogging sites is the increasing size of cell phone pictures. A number of manufacturers have unveiled phones that take images of 1 million pixels and more. But as the size of the images mounts, so does the challenge of fitting them on phones.

Phone makers zoom in
Cell phone manufacturers are also eyeing the new trend. Nokia last month said it would launch a site called Lifeblog that will let subscribers archive cell phone photos in chronological order, along with other data including text, video and audio.

While Nokia's service won't actually publish the archived messages and pictures to the Web when it launches this summer, the company says that's the next natural step.

"We're definitely watching (moblogs) and watching what people are doing, and trying to figure out how we're going to fit in," said Keith Nowak, a Nokia representative. "This wasn't something that we had thought of when we designed camera phones, but anything that increases usage is a good thing for all of us."

Network equipment supplier Ericsson has also set up a moblog site.

Cameras are becoming more popular as cell phone features, to the point of being nearly standard in some regions. In what he called a conservative estimate, InstatMDR analyst Neil Strother said more than 49 million camera phones were sold worldwide last year.

In Japan, the world's leading camera phone market, between 75 percent and 85 percent of cell phones come equipped with cameras, Strother said. The United States lags behind at a fraction of that penetration, but could rise to as much as 20 percent for 2004, he said.

Another study, by the InfoTrends Research Group, predicts that 150 million cell phones with built-in cameras will be sold this year, totaling about one-quarter of all cell phones sold.

The moblog is only the latest variation on the traditional text-based Web log. A minor trend, also oriented around cell phones, developed last year to support audio blogs.

While moblogs have attracted the interest of cell phone companies as a way to spur the use of phone photography, those companies and analysts alike predict that the real catalyst for camera phone usage will be the adoption of compatible technologies between carriers.

The way it is now, interoperability is spotty, preventing users of many services from sending photos to one another. While standards exist for Multimedia Messaging Services (MMS), implementation of these standards isn't expected to provide true interoperability until the end of the year, analysts say.

Meanwhile, mobloggers keep posting pictures and audio and, like text bloggers before them, documenting their lives on the Web.

"I snap pictures whenever I can," said Douglas Derda, a 28-year-old Web developer in Pittsburgh who has been moblogging since November. Moblogging "satisfies that bit of vanity in all of us. Everyone deep down wants to be a star or recognized in some way. With a moblog you open yourself for the whole world to see."

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