Could the Apple iPhone Influence Mobile Messaging?

This post first appeared on my Sybase 365 blog on September 11, 2007.

On Friday, 29 June, 2007-at 6:00 PM local time-a new direction may have been set for mobile messaging. That was the date the Apple iPhone went on sale in the U.S. The Apple iPhone sold 270,000 units by the end of Q2, and AT&T activated 146,000 subscribers on June 29 and 30, with more than 40% of them new to AT&T.  By the week of September 10th, Apple surpassed 1 million units. For better or worse-love it or hate it-the iPhone is destined to have a direct impact on the mobile world.

iPhone is quite a wonder-with its innovative touch screen, sensors indicating screen orientation, high resolution graphics, and of course, integrated iTunes player, as well as unique form-factor. This is the new “must have” phone… of course, the $500-600 initial price tag may have tempered some sales.  Now that Apple has lowered the pricing by $200, maybe 2 million units isn’t that far away.

iPhone is also a wonder based on what it doesn’t have. iPhone does not support MMS, Mobile IM, or the AT&T Mobility 3G/HSDPA network. For such a technological wonder, one wonders why this new device is missing what many consider to be standard capabilities. Apple’s answer to a lack of MMS is that rich media can be delivered to the handset via email (e.g. to or something similar).

As the media was in a frenzy leading up to the release of this unique handset, people queued up-days in advance-in front of Apple and AT&T stores before the release date. After the dust settles, iPhone will either be a flash in the pan for a few months, or-as most predict-it will influence the direction of the entire mobile handset industry.

If its lack of MMS and other standard capabilities maintains, it could signal a turning point for MMS service. In many markets, at long last, MMS has reached a point where there is reliable interoperability, it is easy to use, and is now an option for content delivery.

In reality, the U.S. MMS market continues to show strong and unrelenting growth, with virtually all new handsets to reach the market supporting MMS (except, of course, the Apple iPhone). M:Metrics stated that as of the three-month period ending 30 April, roughly 16% of the U.S. mobile population have used photo messaging. In the UK, almost 30% use photo messaging; for France it is 21%; for Spain and Italy, it is 30%; and in Germany, over 20% use photo messaging.

In terms of the Apple iPhone, M:Metrics has projected that 7.6% of the mobile user population has a “medium interest” in the iPhone. Only 9.2% have a “high interest,” with 47% having “low interest. 36% have no awareness of the Apple iPhone on any level.

Now for the interesting part. Of the respondents that indicated “high interest,” 35% have used photo messaging. Furthermore, 17.6% of the high interest subscribers have sent video messages directly to another phone. For the “medium interest” users, we would see 26.3% and 11.3% for photo and video messages. Consequently, a substantial percentage of the subscribers with high interest will be disappointed in the iPhone due to its lack of true MMS capability.

So why does it matter that the iPhone does not support MMS, if one can receive rich content via email? The answer is simple. A mobile phone is not a PC. Almost all rich media is specifically formatted for PC-sized screens-not mobile phone screens. Not only that, MMS provides an industry-standard method of safely delivering (and generating) rich content. Without MMS, safety and reliability features are lost, such as automatic delivery receipts and even read receipts.

In addition, iPhone breaks with what is now a successful interoperability model. Subscribers can send MMS to virtually any handset within a country (and sometimes internationally), without regard for mobile operator. Users of iPhones will not be able to do this easily. How many of you know which mobile operator your friends use? How many of you know the mobile email address of your friends, or which email accounts they have linked to their iPhone? One of the primary purposes of mobile messaging interoperability is to avoid having subscribers be forced to know this information.

MMS is currently poised to become the replacement means for delivering content to a mobile phone, featuring a much more powerful user experience than WAP-push, or receiving an email and downloading the attachment. What will several million iPhones do to that market?

The likely story is that traditional mobile content will continue to be delivered via WAP push (really just special SMS with an active link, recognized by the messaging client on the handset) or MMS, with the iPhone excluded. Gartner discussed MMS in their June 29, 2007 report, Hype Cycle for Wireless Devices, Software and Services, 2007, by Philip Redman et al: “Proper marketing of MMS could help increase mobile carriers’ income from data services either through increased peer-to-peer traffic or through content delivery at a time when revenue is stalling or even declining in mature markets.”

This piece is not meant to spark a debate or a critique of iPhone, but instead, to provide a view of what AT&T (and future operators who deploy the iPhone) might encounter in terms of customer support issues. Still, I should point out, if it turns out that the lack of MMS is not alleviated, and there are few complaints about what isn’t there, then this could lead to other interoperability problems in the overall ecosystem.

After the iPhone’s first week on the market, several well-known mobile blogs started complaining
about the lack of MMS, or what happened when they did happen to attach a mobile email domain to a phone number. The problem is that some operators return error messages; even some AT&T MMS addresses don’t work.

In addition, several users noted that if they received an MMS, instead of receiving the actual message on their phone, they received an SMS instructing them to visit the AT&T “legacy handset support site” ( This error message is sent to all AT&T subscribers who have a handset that doesn’t support MMS.

Furthermore, users complained that they were either blocked from the MMS retrieval site, or that images from the site could not be viewed in the Safari browser on the iPhone. Another user noted that the MMS retrieval site provided no method of saving a picture on their computer or iPhone, and had no copy/paste capability. As such, there is no way to actually download the picture to the phone.

Still another user lamented that it would be exceedingly difficult to attach various email domains to all 400+ entries in their address book. Still others noted that they had problems reaching iPhones via MMS the other way (e.g. from another operator to an AT&T iPhone).

MMS has, to some, never lived up to its expectations; however, over the last few quarters, MMS is showing both staying power and strong growth. The negative perceptions are, in most cases, price related; with fixed-rate “bucket” plans for messaging that include both SMS and MMS, this should be  alleviated. Furthermore, the industry has made strong strides worldwide to resolve many of the early missteps of MMS in its early years (almost five years ago). Many operators will not take too kindly to the undermining of the ecosystem that was built to help this service thrive.

While it is still early, some analyst groups are forecasting sales of as many as 5.25 million iPhone units for 2007, with sales of 12 million in 2008. Informa forecasts total sales numbers of 140.5 million handsets for 2007 and 151.4 million handsets for 2008. That’s only 3.7% of the 2007 sales and 8.0% of the 2008 sales. Globally, Informa estimates that 1.105 billion handsets will be sold in 2007.

Worldwide, less than 1/2 of 1% of the handsets in the field will be iPhones by the end of 2007, which means that even if these phones do not have MMS, the overall impact to the ecosystem will likely be low in the short term.

So, to answer the question: will the emergence of an MMS-less iPhone influence the global mobile messaging ecosystem,  specifically one that MMS can flourish in? The answer is: no, not right now-it will not. iPhone is but one handset in a universe where well over half do support native MMS.

We expect that in subsequent iPhone software releases, MMS will be supported. While this is not guaranteed, the lack of this capability could be a deal-breaker for more widely distributed handsets. All of this said, MMS has its place, as does mobile email. At some point in the future, the possibility exists for some other technology to displace MMS as a messaging standard. iPhone has made that clear, regardless of whether or not it remains an MMS-free device.