RealTime IT News

Pact May Take Mobile Messaging Beyond SMS

Mobile phone users frustrated by the 160-character text-only limitations of short message service (SMS) will get a reprieve after mid-year as new handsets begin to benefit from a pact between Alcatel, Ericsson, Motorola and Siemens.

The four companies last week pledged to improve mobile messaging by standardising future phones around enhanced message service (EMS), a new standard that looks set to dramatically improve the capabilities of short messaging services.

Recently demonstrated at Germany's CeBIT exhibition running on Ericsson's T20e, EMS does away with standard character-based messages, which have spawned an entirely new language of their own as users struggle to find new shorthand for complex thoughts and actions. By aggregating a theoretical maximum of up to 255 SMS messages and providing a new standard for message representation, EMS allows messages to be enhanced with graphics and a range of text enhancements such as boldface, italics, justification and so on.

Graphics can be any size, although the standard recommends a maximum of a modest 96 by 64 pixels. EMS messages can also interact more closely with the phone -- incorporating music, for example, or facilitating delivery of complex ringing tones.

EMS has been championed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a global organisation committed to building on GSM technologies to develop third-generation mobile standards, and is being offered to the industry as a completely open standard.

With its expanded capabilities, EMS should help messaging become even more useful for mobile customers -- particularly business users, who could use it to transfer rich content for tasks like arranging meetings, collaborating on drafts of documents, and more. It will also provide a far richer medium for opt-in mobile advertising, potentially doing for one-to-one marketing what the graphical Web browser did for the World Wide Web.

Introduction of EMS also bodes well for extending PC-based instant messaging networks -- for example, AOL Instant Messenger and MSN Messenger -- to mobile phones, since the phones will no longer be hobbled by their character limits and lack of formatting.

But perhaps the most immediate beneficiary of EMS services will be the burgeoning market for value-added SMS content such as stock reports, weather, horoscopes and so on. Danish mobile market analyst group Strand Consult, for one, recently forecasted a differentiation of SMS-based services based on their content, with the most valuable content provided to mobile phone customers that the company expects would be willing to pay up to #1 per message.

In Norway, where such services were introduced in late 2000, Strand Consult believes the average spend will rise from #6.70 last year to #10.90 per person this year. Extrapolating to the UK, Strand pegged the market potential for premium SMS at some #142.2 million in the first year and #231.4 million in the second. Given the stellar rise in SMS usage since inter-carrier messaging was introduced in April 2000, this revenue potential would certainly be proportionally replicated on Australian mobile networks, particularly those enabling EMS messages between their customers.

Yet no sooner will EMS-enabled phones become commonplace than vendors will set their sights on multimedia messaging service (MMS), a full-scale enhancement to SMS that by next year is expected to allow users to send each other graphical postcards, animations, video clips, maps, business cards, and all sorts of other multimedia content. A built-in video camera, for example, would allow a user to send a short video clip to a friend as the visual equivalent of a voicemail message.

Nokia is already pursuing its own strategy for multimedia messages through its Nokia Multimedia Messaging (NMM) technology, which explains its absence from last week's EMS pact. But with the benefits of interoperability indisputable, it's clear that NMM and MMS will likely converge into a single next-generation messaging standard.

Since mobile phones would be hard-pressed to provide the processing power and storage to hold such messages, it's likely that MMS will introduce a server-based paradigm with video and graphical content streamed to handsets on demand. Given the bandwidth and storage requirements of such a solution, it will seemingly require more of an upfront investment -- and a more cautious business case -- on the part of the carriers. But with SMS continuing to worm its way into every facet of everyday life, such a business case should become easier and easier to formulate.