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banner Monday, 23 April, 2001, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
Turning mobile phones into portable billboards
shopping mall
Soon you'll need both phone and wallet to go shopping
Text messages. We can't get enough of them, and phone companies hope they are a taste of the future. But, writes BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward, for the user there's a hitch.

For most of us, Wap is woeful but SMS is simply smashing. We can't get enough of them. In February more than 800 million text messages were sent across the four UK phone networks.

In the past we've been sending most of these messages to each other, but now companies, and mobile phone firms in particular, are starting to realise that SMS could do the job that Wap was supposed to, and help them ensure that third-generation (3G) phones are not a complete flop.

"The precedent setting, the partner creation, the revenue demonstration, the proof of principle for 3G services are all going to happen through SMS," said Andrew Bud, chief executive of SMS management company Mblox.

Messaging medium

Mr Bud believes that consumers will use SMS for their first taste of the information-based services that phone operators hope will provide the revenue to pay for their new high-speed phone networks.

The reason for this change in thinking is obvious. "SMS has 100% penetration, every telephone can do it, it's proven technology," said Nigel Couzens of city-info firm WCities, "unlike Wap and the forthcoming GPRS technology."

So brace yourself as more companies begin using SMS to send adverts, news about discounts and special offers to you. The inbox on your mobile could soon be bulging with all manner of messages.

The precedent has already been set at the Lakeside and Bluewater shopping centres in Essex and Kent where late last year SMS advertising firm ZagMe ran the first trials. With its system subscribers tell ZagMe when they are going to the mall, how long their shopping trip will last and the bargains they are interested in.

SMS arriving on a mobile phone
Bargains ahoy!!
The trial has been hugely successful. More than 50,000 people and 150 shops signed up with ZagMe. The service sends a few messages per hour to subscribers. The first messages caused near riots at the stores where the first few consumers to turn up got discounts on sports shoes.

Bill Green, chief executive of ZagMe, put this enthusiasm down to the "novelty factor" but adds: "The use of this is going to become very much a part of life."

The simple reason for this is because it works. ZagMe estimates that a 70,000 direct mail campaign can reach around 85,000 people and produce a response rate of about 1.5%. By contrast a 70,000 ZagMe campaign reaches more than 230,000 people and gets a 10% response.

Mr Green said restaurants in particular like the service because it helps them keep the tables filled. By sending out an SMS during quiet times they get customers coming to the restaurant and keep the tills ringing.

ZagMe started with shopping centres because they are geographically distinct areas and it is easy to know which mobile phone cell the messages should be piped through. Now the service is starting to be expanded into other malls and soon will be available along major shopping streets in city centres.

Ads expand

It is not just shops that are starting to use the service. Last week messaging company Justabeep launched two services, "barbeep" and "nitebeep", that let people know of drinks promotions and DJ appearances via SMS. So far 65 bars in Glasgow have signed up. London and Paris are next. It is only one of many more services that are expected to be launched this year.

WCities, which provides city guides for all manner of mobile devices, is also looking to use SMS as a way for people to find what they want when they are in unfamiliar surroundings.

Mr Couzens from WCities said city centres are perfect for this type of service because the cells served by mobile masts are smaller in built-up urban areas. "Positioning is still done via cell ID and is crude at the moment," he said, "but it is possible to get down to 100 metres in some cases."

Soon it will be possible to interrogate the WCities guides via SMS and get in return a list of good restaurants, cinemas or whatever close to where you are standing.

By getting people used to using their phone to access these sorts of services, be they shopping discounts, sports results or restaurant reviews, many mobile operators are hoping that it will be easier to persuade consumers to move to, (and pay for) third-generation networks.

With 3G networks, and the improvements to existing mobile phone networks, it becomes possible to send longer messages and include sounds, images or video clips or digital tokens that can act like cash.

The downside is that some unscrupulous firms are bound to start sending out spam and clogging the vastly bigger inbox of your futuristic phone with messages that you don't want about services or offers you don't need. Welcome to the information age.

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