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Phone shutterbugs have problem sharing

Tens of millions of phone photos are taken every month, but big interoperability problems throttle the sharing.

Steve Spieczny's career as a camera phone artist is going nowhere, literally. The Los Angeles-based technology consultant hasn't been able to send his tiny masterpieces to anybody else's cell phone.

But Spieczny is not alone because interoperability problems are constricting photo sharing among tens of millions of camera phone owners worldwide.

For now, only camera phones using the same provider can swap photo messages, the result of cell phone service providers each building slightly different version of photo and video messaging services instead of waiting for an industrywide standard, say analysts and cell phone company executives.

While there are other ways to share cell phone photos--Web-based moblogs are becoming popular--Spieczny and other camera phone owners are frustrated that the unique immediacy created by merging a cell phone and camera is being hampered. "The whole walled garden thing is very confusing," Spieczny said.

U.S. cell phone service providers are well-aware of the interoperability problems, and say they expect to have worked out the business arrangements and technical knots by this fall. Wireless e-mails with pictures or videos attached, known collectively as multimedia messaging services (MMS), are the latest data-oriented offerings from service providers worldwide. Carriers are relying more heavily on data services because competition has driven down the prices of voice calls, their main revenue maker.

But so far in North America, just Sprint and Bell Mobility let subscribers swap photo messages across the two carriers' networks.

"We've been pushing for this since last summer, and I do believe that at some point early this fall, we and a couple of other carriers will have interoperability," said Jeffrey Nelson, a Verizon Wireless spokesman.

"We're moving as quickly as we can to deploy a spec," adds Rod Nelson, chief technology officer of AT&T Wireless.

Handset makers are counting on camera phones to help spur sales, estimating that 35 percent of the phones sold this year will have embedded cameras and MMS capability.

"Can we do MMS interoperability, the answer is yes? Should we? The answer is yes, But can we now? The answer is no," said Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak.

Out of focus

Interoperability problems are at every level of MMS, from inside the cell phone networks to the board rooms where carriers negotiate roaming agreements.

From a network perspective, cell phone service providers rushed into picture messaging even though network equipment providers hadn't yet fully settled on a standard for an MMS center, which serves as a carrier's giant clearinghouse to process MMS. It's here that much of the heavy lifting is done, including identifying what handset the message is meant for and adjusting the size of the picture or the speed of the video to meet the handsets' capabilities.

But varying vendors' MMS centers have subtle differences that gum up the complicated tasks. For instance, some MMS centers handle all the standardized audio file formats, others can't.

"For something like a simple text-only message, these kinds of nuances on the network level don't really matter," said Robin Nijor, a vice president of sales and marketing at LightSurf, which outsources MMS Center services to Sprint, Bell Mobility and other carriers. "But it causes problems for MMS."

Handset makers add to the interoperability problems by making phones like snowflakes: no two seem to be alike. Each is hard-coded with seemingly random combinations of existing digital file formats. Also, screen sizes, processing prowess and pixel paucity vary greatly. As a result, MMS has to be tailored carefully so as not to overwhelm some phones. "There needs to be an intermediary step so the messages are tailored to what the phone can do," Nijor said. "That makes it very difficult."

Another major problem: Each carrier charges differently for the MMS services. Prices vary greatly. Some wireless message services charge for sending and receiving messages; others make receiving messages free. It makes for very complicated business dealings, Verizon's Nelson said.