In Defence of MMS

I just read Stephen Fry’s latest blog post about smartphones in general and the Apple iPhone in particular. He really loves the iPhone, but the interesting thing to me was the wish list of future improvements to the device. In particular, support for MMS. That was one of the things that made the iPhone unacceptable to me and not really to be considered a serious mobile phone (along with no bluetooth modem).

From the comments on that blog and discussions with iPhone users that I know, it seems that MMS is a feature that is not receiving the love it should from mobile phone users.

If someone does not know it, MMS is basically richer short messages between mobile phones, where you can add pictures, sounds, and animations to the basic text of SMS. When MMS arrived I felt it to be a “why?” feature, but today, I really appreciate it.

Lots of iPhone users, and Apple as a company, seem to consider MMS a poor man’s email. “If you want to send a picture, use email and then you can pick it up on any client etc. etc.” is a common sentiment. However, this is not a correct understanding of what MMS is for. It is a different modality than email, it is a fast immediate messaging service whose purpose is to show a picture on another phone for immediate appreciation. Not a mechanism to send well-taken digital photos for long-term storage at the recipient. Email does not achieve the same universal delivery into the pocket of the recipient that MMS affords.

For me, MMS is all about short immediate picture communication. Like SMS, but with pictures. Me and my family use it to send short “postcards” to each other, and when you have children and grand parents, it is really ideal. On vacation, all people bring their mobiles, but most people (outside the core tech crowd) do not check email that regularly. MMS is really “instant delight” in this manner.

Also, the simplicity of MMS compared to email makes the interface much simpler to implement. Take a picture, add a caption, and send to a mobile phone number. Email is always more complicated and slower.

MMS also roams better when travelling internationally: an MMS typically carries a decent cost per message, where email would entail data roaming charges that tend to be horrific, still today. Looking for Wifi is often not an option when you are in smaller towns, out in the mountains, in France (it is still hard to find useable public Wifi connections there for some reason), and similar places.

What is also interesting is the effort of the mobile phone network to really deliver MMS messages to everyone, even those without or with limited MMS-capable phones (older models). For example, my wife’s dead basic Nokia lacks a camera and refuses to accept particularly large MMS messages. What happens then? First, the phone tells her in an MMS that “you have a new MMS message, but this phone cannot display it”. Then she gets an SMS saying “to read your MMS, go to this website and enter this code”. Pretty good as a workaround for a lacking phone capability (and likely what an iPhone user would see as well). But as long as pictures are phone-sized, it works well to send her a greeting over the phone in this way.

She wondered why the network was so nice to her, and I think the explanation is pure money: the more people can receive MMS, the more people will send them… and sending MMS is a good source of income to the networks. So having a fairly easy-to-use workaround makes eminent sense.

So, I really like MMS and I find it and SMS  to be one kind of communucation, more immediate and direct, while email is asynchronous with typically quite long delivery times. MMS and SMS together fill a useful niche, quite different from email and phone conversations in my arsenal of messaging solutions.

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