SMS, the Short Messaging Service used on mobile phones, is celebrating its 20th birthday today, just after suffering its first decline in popularity. However, the system still has advantages that will keep it going for several years, even as people make more use of alternatives such as BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), WhatsApp and Skype. Which they are very likely to do, because SMS is a paid-for service while many alternatives are free.
Messaging didn't start with SMS, of course. Specialised paging networks already enabled organisations to send text messages to their staff, whether that was a bank sending prices to a currency trader, a hospital summoning a surgeon, or a delivery company redirecting a van driver, or whatever. Consumers didn't use pagers, but they interacted with people who did.
Messaging was also common on PCs, with systems such as IRC (Internet Relay Chat), AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Windows Messenger and ICQ. Indeed, AIM became popular on the Danger Hiptop (aka Sidekick) mobile phone, particularly among deaf and hard-of-hearing users who could buy data-only packages.
SMS started small — Neil Papworth used a PC to send "Merry Christmas" to an Orbitel 901 mobile phone used by Vodafone's Richard Jarvis, though he had no way to reply — but usage took off once it became the common standard for sending texts. Its major advantages are ubiquity and simplicity:
Ubiquity: almost every mobile phone can send and receive SMS text messages. Users don't need a smartphone.
Simplicity: users don't need to download or install specialised software, or negotiate a common platform with the other user. (Do you have BBM? Are you on Skype? etc.) Not many mobile messaging systems have more than 100 million users, whereas SMS has about 6 billion.
Those advantages will be diminished when more people use smartphones, and when more smartphones become as smart as Microsoft's Windows Phone. WP's People hub enables users to send messages via whichever platform they like — including SMS, email and Facebook — in a single conversation. If two people are messaging one another, the message delivery system shouldn't matter, it should just fade into the background. One day, it will.
However, SMS will still have advantages for years to come. Ubiquity is the most obvious advantage, especially in the developing world where smartphones are expensive and 3G and Wi-Fi networks are less common. But SMS also has the advantages of being billable and identifiable.
Billability: SMS can be used to pay for things, and to do online banking, relatively easily. In various countries, SMS lets people pay for parking or buy soft drinks from vending machines, and everywhere it is used to pay for digital items such as ringtones. TV shows such as Big Brother have made profits from charging people to vote by text message, and many charities have used SMS to collect donations.
Identifiability: large companies and organisations such as charities and political parties see a huge benefit to SMS because it provides a way to harvest people's personal phone numbers. An email or other message can be sent from any PC in a cybercafé using a fake ID and a spoofed or throwaway email address, but an SMS message usually comes from an identifiable mobile phone.
The UK regulator, Ofcom, says the number of SMS text messages has fallen from 39.7 billion in the fourth quarter of 2011 to 38.5 billion in Q2 this year, and this looks like the start of its long-term decline. But nobody thinks we're going to stop sending messages, even if we use different mechanisms.
James Thickett, Ofcom’s Director of Research, says: "For the first time in the history of mobile phones, SMS volumes are showing signs of decline. However the availability of a wider range of communications tools like instant messaging and social networking sites, mean that people might be sending fewer SMS messages, but they are ‘texting’ more than ever before."