Don't let anyone tell you that SMS is dying! It's the only common medium
among the 6 billion mobile-phone users on this planet after voice
calls. They sent 8 trillion text messages last year. Two out of three
users use SMS.
SMS, which in 20 years grew to become central to mobile
telephony, does have competition from instant-message apps and services
such as BlackBerry Messenger and WhatsApp.
Yet in countries such
as India and China, which make up 5 billion of those 6 billion mobile
users according to World Bank data, and where cheaper "feature-phones"
dominate over smartphones, text is the communications lifeline.
or short message service, is the world's biggest form of written
computer- or mobile-based email, and data-based mobile messaging
It's been a long journey since the first SMS text
message sent in December 1992 by British engineer Neil Papworth, then
22. He sent a "Merry Christmas" from his computer to Richard Jarvis of
Vodafone. There was no reply option on Jarvis' phone. That came with
Nokia's first text-capable GSM handsets phone in 1993.
wasn't British. Finnish former civil servant Matti Makkonen, the "father
of SMS", suggested a mobile messaging service in a 1984 conference. In a
rare interview to the BBC, given entirely over SMS, the reclusive Finn
says he didn't ever see SMS as separate issue - "it was just a feature
in mobile communications, very useful for quick business needs".
began to take off in 1995, but slowly, with the average user sending a
mere 5 messages per year. The West, especially the US, was slow to adopt
text messaging, and SMS growth remained slow until the mid 2000s when
mobile telephony really spiked in Asia.
By 2010, five billion
mobile users were sending over 1,200 text messages each, adding up to
over 6 trillion messages that year12 million messages a minute. And by
the end of 2011, six billion mobile users had sent over 1,300 messages
each. That's 15 million SMSs a minute, or 250,000 every second, adding
up to 8 trillion SMS messages.
The flurry of traffic isn't just
SMSs sent between users (peer messaging). It includes those from banking
and other entities to customers (service or broadcast messages). In
India, as in many countries, it's now the norm to get a verification SMS
the moment you withdraw cash, or use your credit card to buy something.
Reserve Bank of India, the country's federal bank, made it mandatory in
2009 to use an additional layer of verification for online use of
credit cards. The mobile provides this second-level authentication for
many banks, with a one-time password. This additional layer of security
has made transactions safer, and the banking sector has become one of
the world's biggest users of service SMS.
SMS is under pressure in
the West, with increasing smartphone use. As well as in advanced Asian
economies such as South Korea and Japan, which have seen a shift to
other apps and messaging services. Britain saw a 3 percent decline in
SMS traffic last year, from a nearly 40 billion peak the previous year.
in India, SMS saw a marginal decline in traffic last year - but due to
anti-spam regulation. The measures were controversial, and ended up
shutting down many legitimate subscription services, with the directive
that the government's national do-not-call (NDNC) registry over-rode
Critics of India's anti-spam regulation say
that while it cut down messages from the organized, bona-fide bulk SMS
suppliers, it created a cottage industry of thousands of smaller
spammers. These shadowy suppliers buy and sell databases, especially of
numbers listed in the NDNC registry, and spam mercilessly.
next for SMS? Clearly, text messaging is a need that will remain as long
as people communicate with each other, even as multimedia (such as
video chat) rises. Text is quick, cheap, economical with bandwidth, and
But text messaging is gradually migrating from the
pay-per-message SMS, toward services that ride on mobile data. I expect
SMS to see a global dip two years down and then get a fresh lease of
life as telcos come up with cheap unlimited SMS plans.
SMSs from banks and others will continue for the decade ahead. They have
no better alternative to SMS. Nor is there a quicker, cheaper, easier
way for the over 800 million mobile phone users in India, and the
billions elsewhere who carry $50 handsets, to communicate.
Prasanto K. Roy (Twitter@prasanto) is editorial advisor at CyberMedia India. He can be contacted also firstname.lastname@example.org.