The death of SMS has been greatly exaggerated

The death of SMS has been greatly exaggerated
The announcement of iMessage and the return of the rumor of a similar messaging system for Android have created a tidal wave of industry analysts, enthusiasts, and media talking heads calling for the death of SMS. The trouble is that everyone is making it sound like they are predicting the death of SMS. There is a big difference there, and one that is filled with far more nuance than would seem at first glance. 

The difference is that no one really wants SMS as a communication tool to die, but everyone wants to end awful carrier fees. Everyone is also pointing in the wrong direction for the solution to this problem. iMessage, BlackBerry Messenger, the rumored Android offering, Kik, Beluga, Twitter, Google Voice, Facebook messaging and every single IM program in existence. All have been positioned to take down SMS and free us from ridiculous fees. But, all of those apps come with their own limitations and pitfalls. 

The first three are (or would be) tied to specific operating systems. Each one inherently limits its potential audience. iMessage may be a threat to any lingering reason someone might have to stick with BlackBerry, but it poses no real threat to SMS as a communications tool. The next three: Kik, Beluga, and Twitter all rely on user adoption, because while the apps are multi-platform, they are still closed systems. Google Voice requires user adoption to use, lacks any attachment system, and isn't available outside of the US. Facebook is surprisingly the closest, because it is cross-platform, and can send or receive messages through Facebook, SMS or e-mail. But, as with all the rest, it still relies on user adoption. 

Requirements

The reason that SMS is the king is because of its ubiquity. It's on every phone, not just every BlackBerry, or every Android, or every iPhone, every phone, including that 3 year old LG feature phone that your grandparents use. And remember, feature phones still far outnumber smartphones in the market. The gap may be shrinking, but that gap is still enormous and those out there who don't need their phone to do much more than make phone calls won't be jumping on the smartphone wagon any time soon. That's a big piece of the puzzle that no one wants to acknowledge. Eventually, smartphones will be the dominant mobile device, and that day may be much closer in some countries than others. That is number one on the list of requirements for an SMS-killer: operability with feature phones.

The list of necessary features for an "SMS-killer" is detailed, but not impossible. The system needs to work on every phone on every carrier. Why should a Sprint user care about iMessage? Or, why should an iPhone user care about BBM? No true solution can be a closed system, it needs ubiquity. It also needs to handle: messaging, attachments, international use, and group messaging. We all need those features. So, what are the options that meet those criteria? There are only two: SMS and e-mail. 

Real options

And, that's the surprising thing: no one ever mentions e-mail in this discussion. E-mail passes every test: everyone has an e-mail address, it has all the features, runs on every platform and carrier throughout the world, and it's free. And, it's available on a lot more feature phones than one would expect, and even beats out SMS in some cases. In Japan, SMS is not cross-carrier, so a DoCoMo customer can't text a Softbank user, etc. But, every phone has an e-mail client and every phone is given an e-mail address, so it's the best messaging option, and it's available on every phone, as long as you have a minimal data plan. And, it seems a lot easier for manufacturers to build e-mail clients into phones than anything else, because e-mail has standard protocols behind it. 

The other option is the one that makes more sense, but only assuming consumers actually have the will to stand up to carriers: force carriers to make SMS free worldwide. The boom of cell phones destroyed the racket that carriers were running with long-distance calling rates, so why hasn't the smartphone/data boom in mobile done the same with SMS yet? Each SMS is such a tiny amount of data that it is absurd that anyone has to pay extra for it, and even more absurd when you consider how much data our smartphones eat up on a daily basis. Even better, consider how many e-mails you send for free all the time. 

The trouble with looking towards these closed systems is that they are all inherently limited and therefore a short term solution. The best we can achieve by adopting iMessage or BBM is to force carriers to make SMS free, at which point we move back to SMS, because what value does iMessage or BBM have if SMS is free? It would be like going back to the original e-mail systems where each was a closed system, and no one could send e-mails to anyone on a different system. It may have some short term benefits to small sets of people, but we still need a universal solution to the problem. And, the answer there is still the same: free SMS, or e-mail on every phone worldwide.

Everyone is quick to say that carriers won't willingly give up the SMS cash cow, and that is true, but that doesn't mean they can't be forced to give it up. Mobile phones killed the notion of long-distance calling. Options like Skype and Google Voice are killing the idea of expensive international calling rates. E-mail killed the idea of paying to communicate with people worldwide. iMessage won't kill SMS. At best, it will simply kill the entire BlackBerry market. And, none of these so-called SMS-killers are going to actually kill SMS. So, either we adopt e-mail as the one true messaging system, or we force carriers to make SMS free. One or both options are inevitable, but how long it takes is up to consumers. 

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37 Comments

1. ATTCallCenter unregistered

Death to the machine!

2. Shafeer

Posts: 79; Member since: Dec 30, 2010

SMS will NOT die. I tell you this now. Well it won't in atleast 5 years.

25. Lucas777

Posts: 2137; Member since: Jan 06, 2011

definately not... and if email shud have, why hasnt it?

37. AustinF1ynn

Posts: 2; Member since: Jun 14, 2011

When phone make 4g default then Video chat will be most of it

3. Gsmalltheway

Posts: 275; Member since: Aug 15, 2009

SMS will never go away. The good thing about SMS is it doesnt matter what phone you have or what app you dont have, Whatever phone you have you can message whatever phone the other person has. If a blackberry ownwer wants to message an iphone it doesnt matter the the iphone doesnt have bb messanger and vice versa.

4. TheBrizz

Posts: 18; Member since: Sep 24, 2010

Gsmalltheway, thanks for simply repeating what the article said :)

5. VZW4LIFE

Posts: 34; Member since: Jun 11, 2011

I agree...Wireless carriers should revise how they charge for SMS service. I think a good idea might be to make SMS a free feature for smart phone customers or customers who opt to subscribe to a data plan on their cell phones. For the customers who choose not to add a data plan (or if their phone doesn't support it,) carriers can continue to sell SMS packages as a stand alone feature.

6. snowgator

Posts: 3621; Member since: Jan 19, 2011

First of all - very good article. Secondly, I was complaining about the price of SMS about two months ago. I felt the same way this article feels- it is simply a cash cow for the companies. Considering how much pricing for plans have increased, It is very much a huge cow. I won't go as far as to think it should be free. Even at the small portion of data it uses, it is still a high enough volume from all devices on their networks that I am fine with a fee. But there is NO WAY it is relative to the amount they are hitting us for. Slice the prices by 2/3rds, and I am no longer offended.

8. jbash

Posts: 345; Member since: Feb 07, 2011

micheal h is a very talented writer

33. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Thanks! Yeah, I've been railing on about SMS fees since I switched to Android (and T-Mobile) back in February of last year. Once I had Google Voice, I couldn't in good conscience pay the ridiculous fees that AT&T was charging for SMS. I'd love to say that GV could be the future, but until Google expands it past the US it's a pointless argument.

7. Joaoakwoa unregistered

"including that 3 year old LG feature phone that your grandparents use" Wow, that's what I call tech-addicted grandparents! My grandmother uses a Nokia from 1999 and my mother uses a Sony Ericsson T610i from 2003 :)

16. JcHnd unregistered

LOL, you know how they are... I'm used to have an LG Feature Phone from 3 years ago... when I was reading this I was like... WTH?

9. joey18

Posts: 665; Member since: Jul 20, 2010

if they cut sms will be g reat the extra money you will pay for the data ime is fucture sms

11. ibap

Posts: 867; Member since: Sep 09, 2009

The carriers will, one way or another, find a way to maintain their revenue stream. The value of SMS is not just that it is on essentially all phones, it is that if you know the phone number, you can send to it. You aren't using yet another address for that person. So what though, if you had to? You have email addresses for a ton of folks. If you had an app that sent to their 'text' address, what would the big deal be? Oh wait - that is what IM was/is. What is the big honkin' deal? Oh, it's because Apple announced it, so it must be hot stuff. Get a grip.

12. Gawain

Posts: 437; Member since: Apr 15, 2010

Nice column. Some of your comparisons however seem to fall short though. For example, stating that iMessage/BBM at best could make SMS free, thus everyone would switch to SMS, is reaching. iMessage, and especially BBM, have performance factors that SMS/MMS don't have (even with an app or service like GroupMe). That aside, I agree completely, SMS is not in danger of dying anytime soon. It's reasonably fast, can reach recipients in spotty coverage and no need for data since SMS rides on a sub-channel of the voice side. Five or six years down the road may tell a different story. Suppose VZW achieves 100% LTE coverage and begins implementing VoLTE, there will be no "need" for traditional voice channels. That is where SMS in some markets may wither. Even then though, there will be some type of SMS service so that messages to non-LTE/4G markets can still be accomplished.

13. Eingild

Posts: 203; Member since: Apr 19, 2011

Everything is exaggerated when new technology comes out. People said that Radio will die when TV came out. They also said that landline phones will die when cellular phones came out; Netbooks will die when tablets came out; and now this? Too much exaggeration is bad for your health people. Don't over think things. Of course new technology will chip away market share from old ones, but it doesn't mean that these new ones will totally replace old school stuffs.

14. hieingild unregistered

landlines are dead, and what are netbooks??

18. Eingild

Posts: 203; Member since: Apr 19, 2011

last time I check, landlines are still widely used in Asian countries such as mine. Netbooks are still also used. I guess these "death of old technology" issues are only applicable in developed nations such as USA and European countries.

20. iami unregistered

Your just stating the obvious buddy. Death of old technology means no one goes out and buys it anymore. Only people that still use landlines are 70 yrs or older because they are to stuborn to learn anything new. And when you say nations that are more devolped as you put it well then yeah duh!!!!! That is exactly what dead technology means. A developed country who can more easily afford the newer technology will stop buying the old, therefor making the dead technology cheaper for underdeveloped companies us you call them. Its like the old saying ones mans garbage is another mans treasure. Go ahead and say something else to prove us right lol

23. taz89

Posts: 2014; Member since: May 03, 2011

its not dead technology if millions of people are still using it regardless if the people are to''lazy'' to change to the new technology. sms will not die until imessage/bbm are cross platforms. not everyone has a smartphone and not everyone needs one. but am all for new technolgy, i myself love to have the fastest and greatest things lol

27. iami unregistered

dead technology in the proper term means it is old technology not that it isnt used any more. Millions of people still use record players are you going to tell me that that is not dead technology. It is not mass produced and finding albums is rare. Its old technology and people who can afford the new will get the new. Only ones who use dead tachnology are ones who cant afford or are simply collectors in it for the nostalgia. There will always being someone using some sort of dead technology and that is there choice. By going what you are saying then there is no such thing as dead technology since someone in the world you will always find atleast one person using something made from the twenties even

36. taz89

Posts: 2014; Member since: May 03, 2011

lol guess your right but you know what i am trying to say. as long as sms is on all phones its not gonna dissapear all together.

15. Alex unregistered

How about whatsapp messenger? It works on every phone (nokia, iphone, blackberry and android), it's free or almost, works beautifully. Why are you forgetting whatsapp in this equation? It seems to me like it's by far the best option of all and the only thing remotely close to killing text messaging.

30. vette21man

Posts: 351; Member since: Apr 06, 2011

As the article states, you still need to have the app installed. It isn't native to the phone. And your grandma's feature phone (i.e., non-smart phone) doesn't even have apps. You have a point if there were only smart phones and blackberry's out there. Still, whatsapp costs money, needs to be native to be ubiquitous.

31. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

I didn't intentionally leave out whatsapp, but it falls into the same category as Kik or Beluga. It may be available on all the platforms, but it still has the same limitation of only being useful if everyone actively downloads the app. Anything that people don't already have (e-mail) or comes built-in to a phone plan (SMS), is inherently not as valuable, because you can't guarantee that everyone will have it.

17. The_WB1 unregistered

I have complained about the cost of SMS for years. For what you get, the cost was not justified. Now having an iPhone w/o an SMS plan, I use Google Voice as my SMS carrier. Screw Verizon and their SMS plan. Kill the cost, or reduce it to a minor package feature and I would reconsider it. ANYTHING to break the stranglehold of carrier SMS service is OK by me.

19. Aswad unregistered

We got almost free SMS from all of our carriers is Pakistan :) just imagine 1000 sms for .094 USD .... and this is most expensive SMS can get here ...we never thought about the alternatives of sms .. actually we don't have to :)

22. phoneguy412 unregistered

look if NEXTEL is STILL here as of today...just think about it...we have nothing to worry about

24. Carson unregistered

I think SMS should be ditched over the coming years slowly in favor of email as a native system. I live in Japan, and my phone uses email to communicate. my phones email address goes like xxxxxx@softbank.ne.jp (softbank is the name of my carrier) No character limit, allows for native images and attachments (no separate MMS system), allows for emoji and complex non-ASCII characters (required when typing Japanese.. 2000 character writing system), no character limit (yes I know I repeated that). Easy to email myself certain things or attachments between my PC gmail account and my phone. (I also wish American phones had IR like Japanese phones. Very easy to transfer contact info) Mobile life and our cellphones are becoming more synonymous with our computers, there should be one universal protocol/system anyway. Standardization.

32. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

That was one of my favorite things about living in Japan: every phone had e-mail built in, and every phone got an e-mail address with a plan. Not sure American phones need IR though, as Bluetooth can do the same things and more. It would be nice for American phone companies to look past NFC as just a payment system and use it for more interesting things like they do in Japan, such as NFC subway passes.

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