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banner Monday, 13 May, 2002, 12:41 GMT 13:41 UK
It's a hamster on your mobile. Or possibly Kylie
Hamster on mobile phone screen, Anthropics
Your computer has a mouse; your phone, a hamster
test hello test
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent
Text messages always seemed a bit low-tech, with their code-like abbreviations. But that could all be about to change.
Instead of having to read all those text messages, how would you like a talking hamster or even a pint-sized popstress Kylie Minogue to read them out to you?

Mobile phone firms are desperately hoping you won't be able to resist the temptation.

Kylie in concert
Kylie could read you your messages
This year will see them start to try to convince you to swap your boring old handset for one with a colour screen that can send and receive messages containing music, video and images as well as unlimited amounts of text.

Swap stop

The numbers of new people subscribing to mobile networks is slowing, so phone firms are hoping the services will help squeeze more cash out of their existing customers.

Unfortunately, before now there have been no handsets available to sell to consumers.

This will change in the next few months as handset makers such as Nokia, Sony Ericsson, and Motorola start producing them.

Ericsson T68
Sony/Ericsson's T68i
To encourage people to start sending pictures phones like the Nokia 7650, Sony Ericsson P800 and Ericsson's T68i have cameras that can take low resolution colour snaps.

Before now the proprietary software running on handsets made by different manufacturers has stopped the phones readily swapping messages that use more than just text.

The basic format for multimedia messages has been agreed by almost all handset makers so all phones should be able to swap them.

We even know how much it will cost to send one of these multimedia messages because two phone firms, Vodafone and Telenor, have revealed prices.

Vodafone will charge 26p per message and Telenor 83p.

Cost conundrum

But in trying to convince customers to sign up for multimedia messaging (MMS) phone firms face a dilemma said John Delaney, a principal analyst at market research firm Ovum.

Typically, European mobile phone users have a new handset every 15-20 months which could mean it takes time for significant numbers of people to sign up, said Mr Delaney.

MMS handsets
Motorola A820
Nokia 7210
Nokia 7650
Panasonic GD87
Siemens M50
Sony Ericsson P800
Sony Ericsson T68i
"They are all aware it's going to take time," he said.

The fact that text messaging is hugely popular - 75 billion were sent worldwide during the first three months of 2002 - might boost take-up but the expensive handsets could dissuade some.

The phone firms could decide to encourage customers by subsidising the cost of handsets, but this may not sit well with investors.

"The phone firms are trying to move away from subsidy and trying to convince the market they are trying to move away from it," said Mr Delaney.

Then there are the technical problems of all those large messages rattling around the mobile networks.

Text messages are one size, 140 bytes, and the cost of transporting them across the network is fixed.

Reading rodent

By contrast, said Mr Delaney, multimedia messages could vary significantly in size.

A 300 character text message will be much smaller than a still picture, which itself will be smaller than a video clip.

Keypad of the Nokia 7210
The Nokia 7210 keypad
Then there is the problem of the messages themselves.

Anyone can put together a text message but images, sounds and video all need preparing before they can be used to deliver a message.

This is where the talking hamster comes in.

British-firm Anthropics is one of many companies working with handset makers and mobile operators to ensure that, unlike Wap, when multimedia messaging arrives you can do something with it.

Anthropics has developed a way of modelling facial expressions by watching the movement of 120 key locations on someone's head and shoulders.

"Faces are very similar to other faces and not to other objects, which means we can hold the difference between faces rather than the face itself," said Andrew Berend, chief executive of Anthropics.

The company has developed players for handsets that use information about the movement of these 120 nodes to make a static, scanned image talk.

The image could be of anyone, or anything. Mr Berend said one of the most popular was the talking hamster that can be used to deliver text messages, read the news or even sing.

Gary Corbett, managing director of Opera Telecom which creates content for phones said multimedia messaging could take off quickly because we already use SMS so much.

"I don't expect people to use phones much more differently when it's multimedia," he said.

The difference will be in what they are presented with be it polyphonic 16-bit ringtones, colour wallpaper for their phone screen, 40 frame cartoons, or music streamed via Wap.

"Phones are now fun," said Mr Corbett, manufacturers differentiate themselves by functions and the content that goes along with it."

All the phone operators have to hope now is that their customers answer the call.

Would you buy a phone that let you send multi-media messages? Let us know using the form below.

Every Monday looks at how technology has changed our lives, and more importantly how we would like to change our lives. Let us know your views, also using the form below.

Your comments so far:

If you had a duck reading your messages, would they appear on the bill?
Mike Wilkins, England

At between 26p & 83p per message!?! You can phone people for less than that, give me two bean cans and a length of string any day!
Dan Logue, UK

And to follow up with the other side of the coin... If you have not yet used MMS then you will not appreciate it for what it is. My girlfriend and I send each other text messages with small cartoons and animations in them - the additional emotion and feeling conveyed is considerable, and they usually still fit within the normal SMS message so the cost is the same. Anybody who thinks MMS won't take off is utterly wrong.
Chris, UK

Of course, this is a great idea.... kind of like a blending of technology.... a melting pot of ideas and a great way to communicate words, text and images. I think the world will embrace the talking rodent phones.
Hegemon, Egypt

Certainly MMS look better than SMS but how often do I need more than words to convey my message? How many people add images and sound to emails simply to enhance the textual message content? I see it being used by companies for marketing, but not extensively by individual users.
Saul Marchant, England

This smacks of a technology desperately looking for a use, and will almost certainly go the same way as WAP. Why pay between 2.5 and 8.3 times the standard cost of an SMS message just to add some graphics and sound, which will doubtless be a cumbersome and frustrating process?
Simon Bayliss, England

What a load of nonsense! Mobile phones hit the product wall a long time ago and now the manufacturers are trying to solve problems that they just don't have. Instead we should be focussing on reducing call costs.
Pete, Liverpool

Sending and receiving multi-media images would be amusing for about the first five minutes, but like musical ring-tones the novelty wouldn't last long! The important thing is being able to get information either by text message or voicemail.
Sonya, UK

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