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FunMail adds instant images to Facebook status & MMS

At the risk of invoking a round of reader rage, I'll admit that I've never really been that hyped on the idea of MMS on the iPhone (and, by the way, get off my lawn). If I want to send someone a picture, I've got their email address; I'll just send them a picture. No big whoop.

I do have some friends and colleagues who 'came up' on mainline camera phones and they gleefully pop pics back and forth via MMS. I also appreciate the ability to decode the snapshots my wife sends from her Motorola RAZR, but overall I wouldn't rate it among the top iPhone features I was eager to get from AT&T (not like the ongoing lack of tethering, which is making me grind my teeth in my sleep).

That prejudicial attitude may have made me a little skeptical when I met with FunMobility's CEO Adam Lavine this week to get a preview of his company's new free app FunMail [iTunes link], which promises to leverage the Semantic Media Project and add appropriate imagery to your MMS messages, short emails, Facebook wall posts, et cetera. It's available in the US App Store as of last night.

Sure, the app is simple enough to use (once you register and accept the company's TOS, which may subject you to occasional text messages from them if you don't opt out) -- type in your message, and the system gives you the text (up to 140 characters) atop your choice of image from a list of five, sourced from FunMobility's licensed libraries along with Creative Commons remixable content from Flickr and other repositories. If you want to include a hidden search term, putting it at the end of the message with a double-hash (##) will tell FunMail to search those words without including them in the sent message. You can send it to any mobile phone number in your address book, to email recipients, or to your Facebook friends or wall via Facebook Connect. The result is a little bit inspirational office poster, a little bit LOLcat, and in some ways strangely intriguing... but not really, you know, useful.

Despite 'fun' being right there in the name of the app, I brought this up to Lavine: isn't the point of a short message service to convey information quickly and in a reasonably utilitarian fashion? Enter the research: depending on who you talk to, mobile users in the 16-25 age group send scores, sometimes hundreds of text messages a day; it's a primary communications mechanism. He suggested that the lack of forceful US adoption of MMS isn't necessarily about people not wanting to send images, but rather that it takes too long and requires too much effort to take pictures and attach them to texts. A more frictionless system like FunMail gives texting users 'something extra' to help set their personal messaging apart and make it a little more interesting to the person at the other end of the exchange.

While you can't send tweets from the iPhone app yet (a 1.0 limitation that's likely to change; meanwhile you can generate Funmailable tweets via the web app), I can easily see the FunMail pictures becoming a source of glee and/or deep irritation for many Twitter users. Images in email or on a Facebook wall don't require any extra effort to see, but clicking on an image link in a tweet only to discover (for the umpteenth time) that it's not actually a picture of something interesting but merely a posterized and FunMail'ed version of the message text... well, it's a good thing that the company will be moving from bit.ly to a custom domain name for URL shortening, which will enable us to recognize the URLs on sight. An open API for FunMail's back end will enable other service developers to leverage the image matching tech, and apps for most other major mobile OSes are on the way soon. The next version of the app will also allow users to add their own pictures straight from the iPhone's camera roll.

I truly can't decide whether I think FunMail is a good thing or a bad thing. The free version of the app will eventually incorporate ads, which could take the form of product-centric image choices based on their relevance to your message text ("Let's grab a beer" alongside an icy Red Stripe bottle?). If I were a brand manager, I'd be swooning at the opportunity to get my messaging slipstreamed into the personal communications between my hard-to-reach potential customers, and wide-eyed at the possibilities for metrics and campaign testing as users tell me click-by-click which of my logos and approaches is the stickiest. As a sender or receiver of said messages, I'm not so certain that's what I want.

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