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ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

Orange SA has joined the multimedia messaging service (MMS) club, launching a Nokia Oyj-supplied picture messaging system over its UK network yesterday, and promising to roll-out service to five other European markets "in the coming months".

The Paris, France-based subsidiary of France Telecom SA is now set to go head to head with Europe's other major mobile operators, including Vodafone Group Plc and Deutsche Telekom AG's T-Mobile operator, who are all bracing themselves for an MMS marketing push in the run up to the Christmas buying period.

As with Vodafone, which earlier this year handed preferred supplier status for its MMS infrastructure to Ericsson, Orange appears to have been influenced by the need to ensure it can source sufficient MMS-enabled handsets, and named both Nokia and Ericsson as preferred suppliers ahead of potential alternatives such as CMG and Logica. With its large global subscriber footprint of 41 million, Orange's business is a major coup for the two Nordic equipment makers, who are now clearly pushing SMS leaders into second place as the MMS extension to the original text messaging technology is rolled out around the world.

All of Europe's mobile operators are counting on MMS to significantly boost the proportion of revenues they receive from data services, which are considered to be the key to future profitability for wireless neteworks. As one of Europe's biggest mobile network operators and, arguably, the most innovative mobile service marketing organization to have emerged in Europe to date, Orange's entry into this key MMS market will doubtless be closely scrutinized by its competitors.

Orange has immediately differentiated itself from T-Mobile in the UK (the former One2One network now owned by Deutsche Telekom) by choosing to charge for MMS on a per message, rather than contract basis. Contract pricing, which has increasingly seen large volumes of SMS messages bundled "free" to voice network users, has been blamed for commoditizing SMS alongside voice calls, harming operators' profitability.

It was expected that operators would attempt to avoid the early commoditization of MMS, but T-Mobile has since launched a service offering 350 picture messages for 20 pounds ($30.64) per month. However Orange, with a much larger and generally more loyal UK subscriber base, has opted to charge 40p per photo-message, where the photo clip is generated by the user, and 25p for picture messages composed using network originated images. This would make the Orange service potentially much more expensive than T-Mobile's. However, this also begs the question of how many subscribers will want to send the 100s of message per month necessary to receive full value from a T-Mobile contract, although part of the answer to this lies in the fact that T-Mobile's is a sender and receiver pays service, whereas Orange's is sender-only pays.

Initially at least, network choice may be most heavily influenced by the price and sophistication of the terminals available to support its MMS services. This has been the experience of KDDI and J-Phone in Japan, who have consistently beaten NTT DoCoMo to market with the most advanced MMS handsets, and won market share from their giant competitor in the process.

In Europe however, the only MMS enabled phones available now or in the immediate future are Sony Ericsson's T68i, and the Nokia 7650, which is expected to ship in the UK later this month. Both Orange and T-Mobile are offering the T68i to customers for 199.99 pounds ($306.04), so the critical moment for both companies may turn out to be when they can source alternative handsets from Japan, which are likely to be more advanced, and potentially cheaper than those from Sony Ericsson and Nokia.

Suzanne Snygg, Orange's senior product manager for multimedia services in the UK, said that the company will offer half-a-dozen different handsets by Christmas, including a 64,000 color-screen clamshell model from Japan, but declined to name the suppliers.

© ComputerWire

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