Lessons learned from 20 years of SMS

Peter Dykes/Informa Telecoms and Media
06 Dec 2012

In common I suspect with many other longer-serving observers of the telecom industry, the news that it has been all of 20 years since engineer Neil Papworth tapped out his seasonal text message to a friend and unwittingly launched what was to become next most successful service to voice, bought a wry smile to my face.

It is tempting to look back and wonder just how we failed to see that one coming. But the fact is we didn’t see it coming, and were collectively taken by surprise by the speed with which the world and his dog adopted text messaging as its second most favourite means of telecommunication. While we may find it deeply ironic that the fickleness of human nature could take a multi-trillion dollar global industry by surprise, we should look for the lessons to be learned from the experience.

The first lesson is particularly relevant to what is happening in mobile telecoms at present. Operators are currently in a difficult position because they need to invest in transformational IT strategies and infrastructure that will enable them to roll out mobile broadband services based on largely untested business models.

The ability to put together service bundles of previously unimaginable complexity is fast becoming a reality, but pricing strategies have yet to be refined, or indeed defined. Educated guesses about what the end-user might want are finding some traction in services such as offering consumers a degree of control over bandwidth and enabling them to create hybrid ‘family’ accounts, but if nothing else, the history of text messaging teaches us that the best ideas ultimately come from the end users who inevitably vote with their feet.

What operators have to do therefore is invest in systems which enable them to offer the very broadest range of services possible and their customers will soon tell them which ones they want and which ones they don’t. It may sound like a scatter gun approach, but we wouldn’t want to miss another killer app like SMS.

The second lesson is more generic, but is nonetheless important for that. It is that some unexpected development, often in combination with other factors, may send the industry off in a completely different direction than was originally intended and could even lead to the demise of strategies and technologies which had been considered integral to the future communications environment, despite having already attracted considerable investment.

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