SMS: past, present and future

07 Mar 2008

I know it's unfashionable to say so in these days of iPhones and mobile music downloads and DVB-H and stuff, but SMS is still very much the future of mobile.

Never mind that Chinese users sent 1.6 billion texts a day last year (surpassing the Philippines for daily text usage), and forget about estimates that people worldwide will send 2 trillion SMSs this year, or that text messaging will generate at least $65 billion in revenues by the end of 2008. For many markets, particularly emerging ones, SMS is as valuable as email and the Internet.'s Joel Selanikio made a good case for SMS in a presentation at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference in San Diego this week. His talk focused on Africa, but much of what he said could apply to any number of markets out here in Asia: poor infrastructure, limited fiber backbone reach, expensive satellite links, etc. Factor in the relatively quick rollouts of wireless, decent handsets priced at under $20, and the ability of operators to survive on ARPUs of $5 a month, and mobile looks a lot more likely to get people connected and communicating than One Laptop Per Child.

And SMS can be used for more than just teens texting emoticons and OKCUL8RBYE - mobile banking, remittance payments, produce market prices, managing medical records, vaccination reminders, and even share trading are done via SMS these days. And then there's more serious apps like tsunami and madman-with-gun alerts for when you want to reach as many people as possible without worrying whether their phone comes with an Internet connection and whether their phone browser or OS is compatible.

Not that SMS is a perfect substitute for the Web or IT tech - far from it. If nothing else, SMS's biggest weakness is its pricing model, which is comparatively exorbitant compared to email. But that's changing. And until the broadband guys can come up with $20 laptops - or unlessmobile operators in developing markets are willing to offer flat rate mobile Internet connectivity for under a dollar a month (with voice bundled in for free) - SMS remains a reasonable and very functional alternative.

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