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. 


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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