Camera Phone Photos: Wired or Tired?

During my marathon couch session on Sunday, I caught up on a show I regularly tivo, Numb3rs. Mind you, a few of my close friends will remind me of what I should and shouldn’t publicly share, but I have no problem standing by my TV show picks. This tidbit of information actually relates to something I’ve been thinking about since returning from the U.K. last month.

During the most recent Numb3rs episodes, a character used a camera phone (right before he was pushed to his demise) to unscramble a physical clue in a contest. Players of an online alternate reality video game were competing in a scavenger hunt that combined game play with real world clues. The cell phone’s appearance in the plot lasted no longer than a couple minutes, but it reminds me that inter-operable multimedia messaging has, coincidentally, gone the way of the aforementioned character in the show.

Hollywood has always been one of the first to jump on the new media bandwagon, and it’s not surprising how many of this season’s shows have picked up on and integrated elements of mobile and consumer generated media — namely, virtual worlds — into plot lines.

What’s surprising is that today in the U.S., multimedia messaging is still not inter-operable. A quick look on Sprint’s Web site under multimedia messaging confirms that not all of the tier 1 carriers play together to create a seamless user experience for picture messaging, one element of a true multimedia message. This, despite the fact that nearly three out of five U.S. mobile phone subscribers have a camera phone embedded in their device today, according to eMarketer. That number is even greater when looking at statistics from abroad; three out of every four mobile phone users have a camera phone in the U.K. Global estimates for 2008 put the number of camera phone enabled handsets at roughly one billion. Of course, we all know that ownership doesn’t automatically equate a one-to-one relationship with usage.

Usage comes from experience. Experiences created either by the carrier/operator or by marketers. While in Spain and London, I met some top vendors in the mobile ecosystem who graciously shared campaigns with us. More than a few case examples included picture messaging. Some of the best campaigns were executed on behalf of the operator and targeted their own customer base. The vendors seemed to clearly understand that teaching a new behavior is the first step in gaining wider adoption. Keep in mind, there’s been some activity in the U.S. A few marketers have experimented with mobile programs that integrated camera functionality. Pontiac G4 and Starbucks Summer Pursuit both easily come to my mind as two such examples. Those programs, however, aren’t exactly recent.

It seems as if the hype around those types of programs has been replaced by interest in another relevant technology, 2D codes. The premise behind this technology, first made popular in the Asia-Pacific region, is that a richer content experience exists behind the 2D code image if captured by a camera phone (oftentimes a pre-downloaded software is needed for it to work properly) and linked to additional content. The picture message remains the same but the idea is to take away “clicks” that a user might otherwise encounter if she was manually looking up the content that lives behind the picture.

Herein lies a problem, similar to the inter-operability issue with simple picture messaging. There are no standards for 2D codes, either in the U.S. or abroad. Without standards and participation from all operators/carriers, a new behavior can’t efficiently be taught. More importantly, convincing marketers to test new mobile functionality such as 2D codes is next to impossible without being able to also illustrate consumer adoption and a somewhat consistent user experience.

To borrow a line from one of my favorite sections in Wired magazine, do you think picture messaging in the U.S. is “Wired” or “Tired?”

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