Overcoming the limitations of MMS

Our experience with Vozmob has shown that narrated slide shows constitute a powerful way to tell stories directly from mobile phones (click on the picture in this post for an example). The tools to produce such stories are embedded in virtually every phone: the built-in camera, microphone and MMS composer that come bundled even in the cheapest phones. Producing such stories is intuitive and natural: users hardly need any training before they can snap a picture and talk into the phone to add an audio description or interview someone. Sending the picture(s) and audio track bundled as a narrated slide show through the phone’s MMS interface is also straightforward. Vozmob takes advantage of that simplicity to instantly upload the narrated slide shows to the vozmob.net web site.

But MMS is not without challenges. Depending on the country, carrier, or phone model, configuring MMS settings can be frustrating. Once sent, MMS narrated slideshows come in a vexing array of undocumented formats, requiring post-processing through filters before they can be uploaded to a web site. Furthermore, in some countries MMS prices are prohibitively high, making it impractical without some way to subsidize participants. In particular, Spain’s MMS prices are among the highest: it costs 1 euro to send one MMS with the three main carriers (movistar, orange, and vodafone), 30 cents of euro for upstart yoigo. 1 euro is about $1.50, or 150 times what it costs in the US when buying MMS as part of messaging bundles.

Yet, existing alternatives to MMS for sending narrated slide shows are not appealing. There are two families of approaches. The first is to use a high-end phone with an internet connection, capable of uploading multimedia content directly to a web site. For people like most vozmob users, who can’t afford such phones nor the pricy data plans they require, this is a non-starter. The second approach is to download all the media elements (pictures and sounds) from the phone to a computer, then use multimedia editing software on the computer to create a narrated slide show, then upload the result from the computer. Compared with sending an MMS, this is cumbersome: one needs to find a computer (most vozmob participants do not have one, so they need to go to a cybercafe or public access venue), figure out how to download content (which is by no means trivial: getting the right cable is difficult, public access computers seldom have bluetooth, and once the phone is connected to the computer, getting the files downloaded is not intuitive), then find software to edit the multimedia object (which, in cybercafes and locutorios, usually means using windows moviemaker, thus producing enormous files, out of proportion with the lightweight pictures and audio files you started with), and finally uploading the resulting multimedia object to the web. That second approach, while technically feasible, constitutes such an obstacle course that very few people are likely to follow through with it and, if they do, are unlikely to do it more than occasionally. By contrast, we have shown with vozmob that people with only access to a basic phone and MMS have no problem sending several stories per day.

The current challenge is to find an alternative to MMS for places where, like Spain, MMS is prohibitively expensive, or cases where, like in the US, setting up unlocked phones for MMS is sometimes impossible. Can we come up with a cheap/free approach to creating a narrated slide show on a basic phone and uploading it to the internet, in a way that is intuitive and straightforward enough for people with limited time, skills, or technology resources?

Here are some possible approaches, to start a conversation:

1)Streamline the download/edit/upload process: design a workshop where users learn to download media from their phone to a public access computer, compose a narrated slide show on that computer, and upload it to vozmob.net. This would involve specifying a few options for cheap mobile devices that have adequate capabilities (e.g. decent camera, connectivity through USB cable or bluetooth) and basic editing software that could be carried around on USB drive (slide show editor, ideally free and opensource). The goal would be an affordable toolkit (phone, cable, USB drive) that users could bring to any public access setting, locutorios, telecenters, or libraries.

2)In-browser slideshow composer: individual media objects (pictures, sounds) captured on the phone are uploaded directly to a user’s space on vozmob.net [see #1 above, skipping the editing step]. Users would then use an in-browser editor (e.g. drupal’s kaltura module, or something else we would develop) to assemble these components into a narrated slide show.

3)Extending the phone-based MMS composer: current MMS composers can only send narrated slideshows through the phone’s MMS interface. We could explore hacking the MMS composer to allow sending those via bluetooth, USB, or Wifi as well. This would allow users to still use the built-in slideshow composer to create multimedia objects, then send them to a computer or another phone which can then be used to upload them to vozmob.net. One possible use scenario would be for people to create slideshows on their phones as they go through their day and store them as ‘draft’; they periodically would come to a project center, or within proximity of a project coordinator with a laptop or phone that could ‘harvest’ the slideshows and upload them.

4)Creating a phone-based slideshow application: #3 above may not be possible, so we would create an alternative slideshow composer that could be installed on participants’ phones and would allow sharing of slideshows through any network interface available on the phone. Slideshows would then be transferred to a PC or other phone, from which they could be uploaded to vozmob.net. (there are existing candidates we could review, such as the carrousel Melissa described).

Do you know of anyone currently experimenting with these kinds of approaches? Can you think of better ways?


5 thoughts on “Overcoming the limitations of MMS

  1. Francois, I wonder if adding a second challenge might open a cable/Bluetooth opportunity, in the blessing-and-a-curse style. Specifically, the pending challenge of how to structure training/learning for new participants. As Mobile Voices considers scaling out to 6+ worker centers around Los Angeles (fyi for others, http://www.idepsca.org/daylabor ), the average participant will have very different training opportunities, compared to the pilot group that has been receiving Tuesday night training for months. So I wonder: what if we emphasize cable/Bluetooth transfer, and look at it as gift: we might encourage a regular stream of people coming in to the 6+ centers with their pictures, looking for just-in-time learning around their uploading. Of course, it makes sense to offer SMS too, but the cable/Bluetooth approach might have the side benefit of helping to structure the offline learning context. My thoughts here are part of a general push back I sometimes have to mobile always seeking anytime/anywhere… are there moments when we want to push for specific places and times?

  2. Thanks, Benjamin. This is a really interesting 5th possibility: computers available as kiosks in key places (like the IDEPSCA worker centers), set up to make it easy for people to dock their mobile and download media. That computer would have bluetooth and a set of USB cables to connect to as many phones as possible, plus software to help download the pictures from various phones (Nokia PC suite, Motorola Phone Tools, etc.). These things are almost never available on public access computers in libraries or cybercafes. It’s kind of the inverse from my #1 above: with #1, users bring the cable they need to the the public access computer; here we’d have a computer set up with as many hooks to phones as we can muster and users could just bring their phone.

    (of course that kiosk could also be set up with media editing software for pictures, sound and video so people can create their stories and upload them as well)

  3. Dear François,

    I live in South Africa, and I am currently conducting studies to set up a similar solution to vozmob. Instead of using a MMS provider I have managed to setup our own MMSC. By doing that I have reduced the cost of MMS’ing to our solution from 75-90 South African cents to 2-4 cents. It requires that the MMSC on the phone is changed from the providers address, something like mms.vodacom.com, to our servers address, but once that is done it now only cost GPRS cost for the transmission, such as 200 South African cents for 1 Mb, which comes to 2 cents for a 10kb picture.
    One some phones you can have a selection of MMS servers, but I have never received a MMS, and could live with just that one server on my phone not been able to use MMS otherwise (unless i change back).
    I like you input François.

    1. Hi Bjarke (and sorry for the delay in getting back…),
      We’d love to hear more about how you set up your MMSC. We are about to do that for a vozmob install in India and it would be great to know more about your experience. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s