Is MMS a Scam?


I remember back a few years ago when I was first starting with WAP and I couldn't believe how touchy it was (one mistake and no display), how slowly it loaded, how ugly it was (WBMP supported limited colors), and how you had to page information after a ridiculously small amount of data because the SMS bearer could support more than a couple hundred characters in one hit.

However, everyone kept saying WAP was the coming revolution so I stayed enthusiastic about it for months before finally giving up on it. It just didn't work.

So now we're hearing all the same promises about MMS. It's going to save the telecoms after SMS plateaus, everyone is going to start sending MMS messages giving the telecoms a massive boost in sales.

Hmm... Okay. Here's my experience with MMS. It's expensive. It's slow. It's limited. So I'm trying to figure out who to listen to when thinking about developing MMS related services, my inner brain which tells me MMS is a dog, or all the telecoms who are saying MMS is the next thing.

I've written about this before - the advantage of MMS is that it's packaged. You don't have to think about it. My Mom can send an MMS message because, unlike email or some chat app, it's integrated into the phone. Snap a pic, enter a phone number, and off the image goes.

That's the ONLY good thing about MMS in my opinion. I think any techie who sees it like myself is going to say "I'll just send this image via email instead". Americans are particularly email centric and haven't been indoctrinated into the SMS messaging mindset like the rest of the world. The first question even my Mom is going to ask is "how do I get this image onto my computer?" and then "How do I send this image to Aunt Mary" who doesn't have a jazzy new mobile phone, but does have AOL.

Let's go over the points again:

Expensive: This is the big one right off the bat. Especially here in Spain where people can make �20 go a hell of a long way on a phone, I can't imagine people are going to swap out cheap SMS messages for an expensive alternative - we're talking up to �1.00 a message!! - no matter how fun it is. The prices for Vodafone Live's messages:

Message Type Contents Size Price
Small Large text (longer than 160 characters) less than 1kb �0.20
Medium Image, sound, text Between 1kb and 30kb �0.60
Large Various Images, sounds, text More than 30kb (up to 100kb maximum) �1.00

Am I halucinating or are those prices insane? The only "good" thing is that you get 50 free messages once you sign up to the service (the first hits are free). For a service aimed at teens, this is damn expensive. Let's look at Vodafone's data prices to compare:

Plan Type Plan Cost Cost per Megabyte Cost per Kilobyte
No Plan - �20 �0.02* (10kb minimum)
2 MB Credit �10 �5 �0.005
20 MB Credit �30 �1.5 �0.0015

So if you compare the prices, you COULD save money by using MMS if you sent only messages that were more than 30kb. You're spending a euro, but the per kilobyte charges fall below the 2 eurocents per kb that normal data charges. But other than that, it's no bargin. If you want to use ANY other service, then you're pretty dumb not to buy a credit plan and start sending emails.

I have the 20 MB Plan from Telefonica Movistar whose prices are similar (but whose website is a disaster, thus I'm quoting Voda). This means for 30 euros a month I can upload and download 20 megs of data without extra charges. It's a bit expensive, but for a heavy user like me it's the only obvious option. Otherwise you pay out the nose since you can't buy two or three "2 MB plans". It's an all or nothing deal. Now, Telefonica has somewhat of a clue and realizes that if people buy the 20 MB plan, they're probably not going to want to pay the insane MMS rates per kilobyte and thus drops my MMS charges down by more than 2/3rds. The maximum I'll be charged for an MMS message is �0.25 euros. That's not bad, but only because I have the plan.

Regardless... no matter what way you look at this, it's an expensive hobby to start. Next point:

Slow: Ever send an SMS message? It takes all of 10-20 seconds depending on your phone's menu system and text input. You click send message, enter a number (usually from your address book), write a quick, less than 160 character message (in which you can say quite a lot), click send and it's gone. An MMS message is quite a different story. The process on my Nokia 7650 - which I'm sure has one of the best menu systems around just by default - takes well over a minute, maybe more. First I take the picture, then I choose my address, add text and sound if I want to, then click send. But then the phone has to connect to GPRS - if it's not available (which is common here in Madrid) it has to wait, then it has to upload the message. At around 2 kb per second speed (realistic), it can take anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds to send the message - all of which you must be connected to GRPS. Receiving a message is just as slow and can be a two step process, depending on how you have your settings. First you get an SMS that tells you that you HAVE a message, then you can choose to download it or not. The good thing, at least, is that received messages are free. From that perspective, it's not a bad deal for recipients, but still really slow since all you normally do is stare at your phone while waiting for the message to arrive. It feels like forever.

Limited: There is a 100kb cap on MMS messages from Vodafone and most MMSCs. That's not a whole hell of a lot. I understand why they have this cap - as you can see from the prices above, they would lose money if they charged a single price and had unlimited bandwidth caps. Also right now MMS doesn't communicate between carriers! Unlike SMS messages, I've yet to be able to send Jim an MMS message, though I did RECEIVE one from his friend Chris (though Movistar wouldn't let me return the favor). So it's a technology with size limitations (like SMS) and interop problems. In other words, the stuff I can do with MMS messages become severely limited. With email - I don't care where you are in the world. I send it and it arrives. Same for a HTML or WML page. I post it and you can see it. However, with MMS, I have to think about which carrier you are on and whether you can see it and how big the file is, etc. These are real problems right now here in Europe - in the U.S. where interop is pretty much unheard of, it's a substantial barrier. Email is so common and getting easier to use every day (especialy with deals like Nokia's pact with RIM) that in my opinion it's going to be a real challenge to MMS messages...

So, the question begs: Is this another dog like WAP circa 2000? Expensive, slow, technically limited and COMPLETELY over-hyped...

My one thought is that these nutty prices HAVE to be just the "early adopter" rates because once 3G arrives, the price per kilobyte ought to drop dramatically, making the MMS prices seem even MORE ludicrous. So if you think this way, right now the carriers are charging the prices they need to to make a profit from GPRS tech. But next year, the prices will drop substantially as newer technology makes bandwidth less expensive. That's what I hope, but I don't know... If it's true, then developing MMS services will make sense as it becomes cheaper and more widespread. And also, as WCDMA/3G/UMTS arrives (all names for the same thing) data speeds will improve and this whole process will become more seamless thus negating the "slow" problem above, but I can't imagine we're going to see real 3G adoption in europe for several more years, so I think these points are moot.

The one thing I'm not sure about yet with MMS tech is if I can just send myself an MMS message only using SMS and my own MMSC. I can't imagine that's possible since someone needs to pay for that bandwidth and it's not going to be the phone owner since they are just receiving the MMS not initiating it... not sure just yet. I'll have to come back to this.


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