Will photo messaging be the next killer app? Handset makers build in digital cameras for snap-and-send viewing.
Some experts forecast that color displays, combined with the broadband abilities of the new 3G cellular network (so called because it represents the third generation of wireless technology that is 40 times faster than previous standards), will make photo messaging an immediate and surefire success. Perhaps this will be the "killer app" the industry is looking for to stimulate the U.S. cell phone market. Although a Sprint 3G wireless network is expected to be in place in the United States later this year, the concept of photo messaging that took Japan by storm uses the existing 2.5G cellular phone networks.
According to New York market research firm Jupiter Media Metrix, Japan is ahead of the game, with Asia forecast to spend $2.6 billion on mobile devices and services in 2002, while Europe is expected to generate $500 million in mobile sales by the end of the year. Projections are much lower for the U.S. market, at only $100 million in sales for mobile devices for 2002. On the other hand, Jupiter also predicts, by 2005, mobile products and services worldwide will reach the $22.2 billion mark.
U.S. companies are already carving out profits in the wireless photo-messaging market, and some unusual services are evolving. Cellular subscribers to the big three wireless networks in Japan have access to a library of about 2,000 stock images online at the Corbis Gallery site. For [yen]300 (about $2.30) a month, subscribers can download images and screen savers for their phone displays, or attach selected photos to text messages.
"We launched this service in May 2001, and it has been extremely successful. It's a digital product in a new market that pays benefits to both our photographers and customers. People want to communicate graphically" comments Mark Sherman, vice president of Business Development for Corbis. "There's a passion and thirst for innovative technology by Japanese consumers, as well as a demographic `sweet spot' target market of 18- to 30-year-olds, who love fashion and the latest, greatest content. They use content in images to express themselves in a creative way.
"We see the beginnings of the same kind of U.S. consumer market now. But, the market ultimately depends on the penetration of multimedia-capable handsets, which is the determining factor as to when things are going to happen here. It's a matter of months. Consider that we started the Corbis service in Japan last May, and we expect to hit the $1 million mark during 2002," Sherman predicts.
Multimedia message services go by the acronym MMS, while text-only messaging is called SMS. Messaging--even text-only messaging--is big business.
The great majority of installed cell phones are small-screen, monochrome, text-only devices. Manufacturers are gearing up for a fourth-quarter introduction of larger color screen, photo-capable handsets and wireless palm-size computers that have built-in digital cameras, or directly accept images from digital cameras. Some devices are being hyped in advance, even though they are not yet available in the United States. The hope is the U.S. market will provide lucrative new business for MMS services and equipment, stimulating the entire cell phone industry, which is currently in the doldrums.
Sweden-based LM Ericsson, the world's largest manufacturer of cell phone equipment, announced in April it is laying off 17,000 employees, 20 percent of its work force. It expects to cut 7,000 workers in 2002 and 10,000 in 2003. "It's very much a matter of trying to sweat it out, trying to survive a very hard recession in this industry," comments Ericsson's Chairperson Michael Treschow. The main problem, according to industry watchers, is debt-burdened network operators have cut spending because of the slow introduction of 3G technology.
New MMS handsets and cellular phone-friendly digital cameras, however, are appearing in the U.S. market. Ericsson is currently selling the Sony Ericsson T68i cell phone equipped with color screen, and, when used with the accessory CommuniCam MCA-20 camera, it has picture-taking ability. The company is now hawking the new Sony Ericsson P800, which features its own built-in camera, as well as a color display screen. The VGA-resolution photos can be stored in the phone's photo album and e-mailed to computers via the Internet. Two P800 owners can send and receive images from each other using MMS message service. No price has been announced for the P800, but it is expected to be in the $500 to $750 range (www.sonyericsson.com).
Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. announced the Model SCH-X590 mobile phone with color display and embedded CCD camera, which has a 180-degree rotating 4x optical zoom lens and 20 different aperture settings. The handset employ's the third-generation CDMA2000 1X network. The SCH-X590 can archive up to 100 images, post images on a display background, and search through archived images six at a time. Although not announced, the price in Japan will be approximately US$385. The company also reports it is developing an MMS folding handset with color screen and a built-in camera with a 360-degree rotating lens, and the synchronous IMT-2000, a handset that can display motion pictures on a color TFT-LCD with a color gamut of 260,000, and can transmit live images of the speaker's face during phone conversations (www.samsung.com).
Other companies are taking the camera plug-in route. The recently discontinued Kodak PalmPix is an accessory camera module that clips onto Palm computer models. PalmPix models provide VGA-resolution (640-by-480 pixels) with the Palm ml00 model and SVGA-resolution (800-by-600 pixels) with the m500 PDA. But, alone, the PalmPix did not have wireless connectivity.
Tokyo-based Ricoh Co. Ltd.'s Ricoh Digital Camera Division, West Caldwell, N.J., and Kyocera Wireless Corp., San Diego, Calif., call the $1,299, 3.3-megapixel (2,048-by-1,536 pixels) Ricoh RDC-i700, "the world's first Internet-ready digital camera." The company recently demonstrated, when operating through the CDMA2000 1X network using Kyocera Model 2235 or 2255 handsets, the 3x zoom lens Ricoh RDC-i700 can be connected directly to these cellular phone models and transmit images at a rate of 153 kbps as FTP data using wireless 3G network technology. It can operate in a video mode at 320-by-240 pixels at the rate of 10 frames per second (www.ricohzone.com). The camera can also be used with Bedminster, N.J.-based Flarion Technologies Inc.'s flash-OFDM mobile broadband network technology (www.flarion.com), as well as wireless 802.11 networks, and Lucent Technologies Inc., Murray Hill, N.J., 3G wireless network technology (www.lucent.com).
Florida-based Concord Camera Corp., Hollywood, Fla., announced at the PMA 2002 International Convention & Trade Show the Concord Eye-Q IR digital camera, which features wireless infrared beam transmission of images to the Nokia Communicator line of cellular phones (www.nokia.com). The VGA-resolution SLR camera has a 3x optical zoom lens (www.concam.com). Nokia will shortly launch the Model 9290 Communicator in U.S. markets--the phone was introduced in Japan and Europe last year. Camera photos can be viewed on the handset's color screen and then transmitted as an e-mail message over the wireless network to a Web address, or to other phones, if the service provides photo-messaging capabilities.
One company hard at work enabling the growth of photo-messaging is LightSurf Technologies Inc., Santa Cruz, Calif., which engineers imaging, media content, and telecom infrastructure solutions for manufacturers of digital imaging and wireless communication equipment, including image delivery server technology for online content applications (www.lightsurf.com). The company developed LightSurf ephoto instant photo-messaging and media delivery solutions for Kodak, ISIZE, Yahoo Japan, Sprint, and Motorola.
"In our view, the reason photo messaging hasn't taken off in Europe and North America is due to the lack of availability of large-screen, color handsets. We think it will launch late this year, and be huge next year," predicts Robin Nijor, vice president of Marketing at LightSurf. "We've demonstrated the ability to share high-quality VGA color photos in less than 60 seconds over today's 2G and 2.5G networks in North America. LightSurf has a lot of expertise in optimal image delivery. Of course, with 3G networks, we'll be able to do everything much faster. But, we never looked at 3G verses 2G as the reason photo messaging hasn't taken off. It's due to the lackluster user experience on today's devices--typical monochrome handsets don't provide what's needed."
Nijor comments there are only four handsets with color displays currently available in the United States; however, by year-end, he expects to see as many as "12 good, affordable, color handsets" sold in North America. "The timing is perfect, since Sprint, using LightSurf technology, is launching its photo-messaging services (CDMA2000 1X) in the second half of this year. The time has come," he predicts.
Although it supplies LightSurf ephoto technology, the company isn't involved in manufacturing imaging handsets or digital cameras. But when images reach the Web, they hit LightSurf eSwitch servers; and when photos are sent from "your" device to "my" device, LightSurf will manage them, according to Nijor. "We're the brand-behind-the-brand technology and service provider for Sprint, working invisibly in the background. We do the same for Kodak as the instant imaging platform that runs the Kodak Picture Centers," he says.
Among the innovative photo-messaging applications expected by LightSurf in the near future to be instant imaging hits are:
* Photo greeting messages.
* Professional sports and entertainment applications can offer fans exclusive photos of favorite players or pop singers.
* Law enforcement and government agencies can draw on a mobile database of digital identification photos.
* Medical applications could be a boon for residents of remote or rural areas, where telemedicine provides an instant ability to share patient records and diagnostic images with other physicians and clinicians.
It appears the digital technology is ready for sophisticated 3G wireless photo-messaging systems in the United States. The question remains as to whether the nation's consumers are ready for MMS photo-messaging networks.
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|Publication:||Digital Imaging Digest|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2002|
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