The UK’s phone operators need to get the picture

The technology for photo messaging has been around for years, so why hasn’t it happened? Fiona Harvey examines a communication fiasco.

The ads make it look so irresistible: tanned tennis stars taking pretty photos and sending them to one another by phone; doting grandparents seeing pictures of the latest arrival on their mobiles.

But it’s not that simple: what the ads forget to mention is that the services allowing you to send photographs by mobile phone only work within each operator’s own network. The four UK operators have so far failed to agree on an infrastructure to allow picture messages to be sent as freely between networks as text messages currently are. And the signs are that they will not agree for many months.

At present only Orange and T-Mobile have launched picture messaging services in the UK, but O2 (formerly BT Cellnet) will catch up within a month, and Vodafone shortly afterwards. However, experts estimate it will take at least until the middle of next year for the operators to establish interoperability.

Why is it taking so long? After all, picture messaging, or multimedia messaging service (MMS), has been technically possible for years.

One major sticking point is that billing arrangements have yet to be hammered out between the operators. It’s also a technological problem – the General Packet Radio System (GPRS) links between the networks have to be properly established and tested, and the MMS hardware and software from different vendors must be adjusted. The links should be straightforward; as for the equipment, vendors like Nokia and Logica, who make the back-end service centres for picture messaging, must take the blame. They have failed to agree a full set of technical standards – despite knowing that such centres would have to work together to enable a proper, coherent service.

You might have thought the mobile networks had an incentive to get over their squabbling – everybody knows that the mobile telephony industry is in trouble. After bidding up the value of third-generation licences into billions during the boom they came back to earth with a bump on discovering that the market for mobile phones is not infinite. Now that everyone has a mobile bar the very young, the very old and the prison population, there’s not much room for growth left.

So the phone companies need new ploys to get us all spending more. Text messaging, which turned overnight into a teen craze, proved a winner. SMS messages accounted for nine per cent of mobile phone operators’ revenue last year, but 29 per cent of their profits.

Picture messaging was never going to be quite the equivalent, being charged at premium rates and requiring more expensive handsets. Most text messaging goes on between prepaid mobiles; higher-value customers, with contracts and a need for business calls, tend to use it only rarely. But sell them the ability to see photos of their children or spouse; add business applications (engineers on site could send digital pictures back to the office for analysis or help)… and bingo, a great new source of revenue.

With the pressing need for multimedia messaging to work it is incredible that the first services have been launched without interoperability, and no prospect of it in the near future. Have the operators forgotten that SMS only took off in the UK once it was viable across all networks? Have they failed to look at the US, where text messaging still attracts only a few users, because it has taken so long for operators to agree interoperability?

Above all, have they forgotten the lessons of WAP, which promised so much and delivered so little? Customers believing WAP would bring them ‘the internet in your hand’ found it brought only bemusement as they couldn’t use it. This dealt a serious blow to operators hoping to use WAP as a staging point to get customers into 3G. People sold on the idea of taking pictures by phone are likely to be equally dismayed to find they cannot use the service between networks.

For technologists the spectacle of another looming failure can only be depressing. These people rely on standards, without which their jobs become impossible. Shame on the equipment vendors – surely we’re all grown up enough to see the value of basing hardware and software on industry, not proprietary, standards? Greater shame on the network operators, who should know by now that the value of a network rises exponentially with the number of people on it, and that disrupting communication between customers is stupid. Communication, after all, is their business.

Fiona Harvey is technology writer for the Financial Times

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