Next generation services are here from O2 and Vodafone

31 Oct 2002

Vodafone and O2 have finally unveiled the services that will make use of their GPRS, always-on infrastructure courtesy of two more technologies.

MMS (multimedia messaging service) allows for the transmission and reception of pictures, sound clips and text (simultaneously if you like) while Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) generates applications in a ‘write once, run anywhere’ code that threatens to finally ignite the concept of the mobile internet.

For the consumer, they translate into picture messaging and mobile gaming, both making use of a new generation of devices that include colour screens in their armoury.

Pre-configured, pay-as-you-go services are the order of the day, operational from the moment the customer walks out of the shop. Both networks are focused on slick usability that bypasses the technology. Both networks have invested heavily in training retailers on how to pitch devices that are much more sophisticated than cheap and cheerful voice-only phones.

“In the UK, T-Mobile launched picture messaging during the summer and from the press I read it has not gone as well as it had hoped,” says Campbell Scott, product director at O2. “People were buying phones that weren’t configured. We’ve put a lot of effort into making sure you can walk out of the shop and that your phone will work.”

The new services inevitably raise old questions about the role of mobile phone operators — are they content suppliers or merely carriers?

Vodafone’s Irish CEO, Paul Donovan, talks about Vodafone Live!, the network’s one-stop services portal, as a radical step forward that redefines the network’s role. “We are not in the business of generating content. We are in the business of packaging it in propositions that customers find motivating,” he says.

At O2, Scott says something similar: “We’ve taken a position in the value chain. We have the distribution network, the relationship with our customers, the billing and charging mechanism. And we have the capabilities to support content production. We look for interesting ways of working with the content providers and sharing revenue with them.”

In the case of Vodafone, the new simplicity extends to its own-branded handset — a customised version of the Sharp GX10. “It has a dedicated one-touch button that will bring you through to the Vodafone Live! menu,” explains Tadhg Cotter, who has been heading up the Irish end of a global launch.

Both networks are gambling on the success of multimedia messaging, in particular, to the extent of co-operating with each other to make it work. Although their respective portals and services can only be accessed by their own subscribers, pre-pay as well a contract, they are looking to enable users to send pictures between both networks.

Their optimism for MMS stems from its popularity in Japan where an increasing number of phones comes with integrated cameras. J-Phone Vodafone has now sold more than six million camera phones since it launched its Sha-mail service in November 2001.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in Europe is making the new camera phones affordable to its youthful target audience. With this in mind, Vodafone has launched a 12-month finance scheme that will take the price for a device to as low as €99.

It remains to be seen if such offers and the phone subsidies in general will be enough to kick-start a market. The operators and, to an even greater extent, the phone manufacturers have an awful lot riding on the popularity of picture messaging and games.

Both networks have been careful to launch a service that is not dependent on the recipient having an MMS (multimedia messaging service) device. They offer a web page where the recipient can view the message. The URL is communicated via an SMS (short messaging service). Alternatively the image can be sent direct to an email address.

Vodafone Live!, the one-stop portal, launches on 7 November. Customers, however, can access individual services and content such as picture messaging without going to Vodafone Live! Some of the services, such as games and ringtones (launching with 10 for free) and the exclusive sponsors’ content (Manchester United and Ferrari), are only accessible through the portal. Cost of sending a picture message is 39c.

There will be 15 games available for launch at Vodafone Live! including Pac Man, Galaxian, Xevious and Space Invaders. Cost per game is €5 or €7 depending on the title. In a special launch incentive that will run to until the end of March there will be no download charge.

Two days ago, O2 launched Media Messaging, its MMS service with a provisional price of 50c per message. The service also includes a library of ‘online’ pictures that can be accessed, edited and sent on. There is a photo store feature and a facility for logging on to your own online photo album.

O2’s Games Arcade was launched last week and became Ireland’s first commercial Java games service. Games include Oilrig, Highway Racer, Forbidden Jungle and Towers. O2 says an assortment of new games will also be added each month to the portal. Cost per game download is €2.50 with an additional cost for time spent downloading, expected to be less than €1 in most cases.

O2’s Locator is a suite of services exclusive to O2. Based on an offering pioneered by Germany’s O2 network, it has a ‘find it’ type service for ATMs and so on, but also features something called Buddy Finder.

When a friend, who must also be on O2, agrees to participate, it is possible to interrogate the network to find his or her location, determined by the nearest cell site. An SMS (costing 11c) will alert the user when an address is determined.

In terms of day one devices, Vodafone is launching its Live!-branded Sharp GX10 camera phone on 7 November (€299 with an airtime contract and €549 pre-pay). The other two products are the Panasonic GD87 and Nokia 7650. They share the same price points — €379 with a contract and €579 pre-pay.

Provisional price points for O2 devices are €399 for the Nokia 7650 on contract and €549 pre-pay. The Sony Ericsson T68i is only available with a contract for €399. The phone has an optional camera attachment for €200. The third phone is the Sharp GX1.