MMS is short for Multimedia Message Service, electronic messages that contain attachments like sound recordings or photographs. Personal computers have been exchanging MMS notes for years, for instance every time a photograph attached to an e-mail lands in an in-box.
With nearly 40 percent of all U.S. residents owning cell phones and other wireless devices, software makers, wireless carriers and phone makers are trying to add wireless to MMS messaging strings as a source of new revenue. This week Microsoft joined the fray by demonstrating for the first time how its PocketPC Phone Edition and Windows Powered Smartphone 2002 software could exchange mixed-media messages during an MSN Messenger session.
The company also said it is working with wireless software maker Logica to "build a bridge" between users of MSN Messenger and any future MMS features Microsoft might offer. But Mike Wehrs, director of technology for Microsoft Mobility, stressed that the Logica partnership, plus Microsoft's demonstrations at this week's 3GSM World Congress 2002, are not a commitment by Microsoft to offer MMS in the future.
MSN Messenger might be the first of the top three instant messaging programs to take steps into the MMS market. Yahoo has no plans for now, a spokeswoman said. "There might well be a niche market in the distant future, but our focus is on users' wireless messaging needs today," she said.
AOL Time Warner began working with Logica last February to ensure that America Online's wireless messaging services would work on any Logica equipment used by wireless carriers like Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless. AOL did not return repeated telephone calls for comment.
What Microsoft was demonstrating was rather conservative compared with other multimedia services being shown off at the conference. One demonstration, for example, began with someone sending an e-mail to a handset. Instead of trying to punch in a response on the phone's keyboard, the person talked into the phone and recorded a response. That response was then attached to the e-mail, which traveled back to a personal computer, where the sound recording was translated into a text message.
MSN Messenger might fit in somewhere in the MMS fray, Wehrs said. But don't count on the company supporting the above or any earlier visions for MMS, like sending two-minute movie trailers to the handsets of patrons waiting in line to buy tickets.
"MMS is supposed to provide a richer wireless experience. But...not yet," Wehrs said. "First of all, the cost issues are really dramatic You want to send three seconds as a video clip? You're talking about several dollars to do it. For practical reasons, people aren't going to do that."
U.S. carriers that would ultimately sell such services are reluctant to comment. AT&T Wireless, which just launched its mLife service that relies heavily on people using their phones to send each other text messages, said it is "exploring all options," according to a spokesman.
Some carriers have already delved into MMS, but the services aren't available in North America. Users of both NTT DoCoMo in Japan and SK Telecom in Korea can use handsets to send e-mails and data at speeds fast enough to avoid 10- or 15-minute downloads.
NTT DoCoMo has signed up 50,000 people since January for its service that allows people to exchange photos between handsets.