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The real picture – With myriad practical uses, picture phones are gaining acceptance, writes Sean Dodson

Thursday July 3, 2003

The Guardian

A little over a year ago, at T-Mobile’s flagship store in Oxford Street, a few dozen journalists gathered to witness the European launch of multimedia messaging service (MMS). Each was given two new Sony Ericsson T68i handsets, the first European mobiles able to take and send pictures. Expectations were high. But to the embarrassment of the companies involved, the network went down and the demonstration failed.

It was an unhappy baptism for a technology that was hyped as a potential saviour of the mobile industry. With revenue from voice calls levelling after years of incredible growth, “mobile operators can ill afford multimedia messaging services to fail,” wrote Joanne Taaffe, in Total Telcom Magazine.

Now, we are beginning to see a different story. Picture phones, such as the Sagem myX6, are being sold for under £100. Mobile networks are offering international roaming services for picture messaging. Interoperability – the ability to send messages between different networks – has been possible in the UK since April 16. Countries that started with interoperability – Finland and Norway – have seen a quicker acceptance of picture messaging than the UK.

Perhaps, more crucially, we are beginning to see communities develop around picture messaging. Cheeky photoblogs like Celebs at Starbucks are giving picture messaging a life of its own.

What has become clear is that the phones are being used in a different way than intended. Instead of people sending pictures between phones, those who have bought a MMS-compatible phone are more likely to email images to themselves or share them using small networks like Bluetooth or infrared.

“It seems to be less person-to-person messaging. We are seeing quite a few examples of people taking photographs and uploading them to the web,” explains Mike Short, chair of the Mobile Data Association, an industry consortium that issues figures for text messaging and the mobile internet. “The dynamic is quite different from the way text messaging took off.”

In the UK, there are nearly 50m text-compatible phones compared with just 750,000 MMS-compatible ones. As Short points out: “These numbers constrain how much person to person messaging will take place”.

Mobile carriers will not yet release figures on how many picture messages are being sent in the UK. Vodafone recently stated that as early as next year, it expected 7-10% of revenue would come from picture messaging.

People are beginning to find practical uses for the new phones. Women are using their phones to take images of taxi drivers. Receivers of faulty goods are snapping the damage and sending the images to the company. People hiring cars are taking pictures of scratches before they drive off. At the Royal Glamorgan Hospital in Llantrisant, south Wales, junior doctors are using mobiles to send pictures of x-rays.

But there have also been abuses. Companies with sensitive documents are wary of staff with picture phones. Some health clubs have asked members not to use them. Signs have appeared in Japan asking customers not to take pictures of magazine articles, while picture phones are banned in Saudi Arabia.

Picture messaging was invented in Japan, where it took two-and-a-half years to reach mass-market acceptance. Now it is commonplace. Just take David Beckham’s recent visit. The Real Madrid player was met by swarms of people holding picture phones aloft everywhere he went.

“Although there was a lot of hype with the launch of things like Vodafone Live, the reality is only a small percentage of users have camera phones in the UK,” explains Ben Wood, a mobile phone analyst at Gartner. “We regard photo messaging as a kind of disposable photography. It’s sending a picture you probably would not have previously taken.”

It’s too early to tell how picture messaging is doing, but it is worth remembering that text messaging was first available in 1993 and it did not take off until 1998. The mobile internet was first available in 2000 and only now is it also beginning to take off. Unlike the pictures the phones take, there is no immediate answer.