Despite Rumors, SMS is Not Dead

June 20, 2011

1:00 pm

Much has been made throughout time about the end of the world.  Last month’s Twitter-frenzied, anticlimactic rapture.  The fatal fallout from the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997.  The belief of some scientists that the Large Hadron Collider would create a black hole capable of swallowing the earth.  And remember that little panic called Y2K?  I’m still looking for reasons to use my stockpile of duct tape.

I’m here to offer my own prediction.  One that will cost nothing of your life savings.  One that will soothe panic and save a world of worrying technologists and brand marketers.  I look to you, the people of the mobile phone industry, to offer this prophecy.

Text messaging is not dead!

At Apple’s developer conference last week, the public was privy to a glimpse into the future of mobile messaging.  A view so bleak to mobile carriers, it sent ripples through the blogosphere and produced headlines such as “Apple Has Finally Stuck A Dagger Into SMS. I Love It” and “Did Apple create an SMS killer?” Apple unveiled its long rumored iMessage, a mobile-to-mobile real-time messaging service rolling out in the new iOS 5 this fall.  This service bypasses traditional carrier supported (and profited) SMS technology and is of no cost to the user.

Sounds great, right?  Apple loyalists can message their Apple loving friends without requiring a message fee or text plan.  I’m sold, and in all disclosure, I’ll use the service.  However, the calls for this being the death of SMS is a bit narrow focused.  Let’s lay out some of the reasons from a marketing and user perspective.

–       iMessage, and the Android version (rumored to be in development), just like Blackberry’s BBM, are platform-specific.  Very few people have an entire communication sphere all using the same type of handset.  Until cross-platform functionality of operating system messaging exists, SMS is still the most ubiquitous and platform-agnostic form of communication.

–       Marketers still have a stake in SMS for communicating with the consumers they have build relationships with through opt-in initiatives.  Unless Apple, Android, and the other handset companies are willing to offer an integration and ability to segment communication, marketers are not about to give up the holy grail of personal engagement – their opt-in mobile database.

–       Consumer utility applications and usage in areas, such as personal mobile banking, have no method of integrating into device-specific messaging platforms.  If my credit card information is compromised, technology has given me the expectation of receiving an instant text message with an alert.  No technology exists allowing for all push messages into device-specific messaging apps.

–       Even if Apple, Android, RIM and the other manufacturers came up with a way to allow cross-platform communication, which is highly unrealistic, there is still the issue of worldwide mobile usage.  Many countries outside of the United States exist in a world where data plans are much too expensive to afford. According to a 2010 International Telecommunication Union report, there were more than 6.1 trillion messages sent worldwide in 2010.  Despite the popularity of mobile email, IM and MMS, that number is expected to grow to over 10 trillion in 2013.  SMS is still the most used form of communication almost worldwide, and it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

When Ray Tomlinson sent the first email in the 1970’s, and the popularity of the technology grew in the 80’s and 90’s, there were many people in the paper industry claiming the sky was falling.  By the turn of the century, we were supposed to be living in the world promised to us in “The Jetsons” where everything was digital.

Here we are in 2011, and my home mailbox is still full each and every day.  Marketers are still using paper to reach end users, and companies still print bills the old school method (regardless of most of them offering paper-free alternatives).  Digital has become commonplace, but paper manufacturers and distributors still exist.

Apples’ iMessage platform, and the sure to-be-released Android version, will change the way people communicate – with those who have the same handset.  But will mobile carriers lose out on the $25 billion per year industry that is text messaging?  Doubtful.

It all comes down to one simple idea – ubiquity.  SMS is still the most ubiquitous form of mobile communication.  Corporate rivalry in the mobile handset industry will no doubt step in the way of thrusting IM past SMS in that department.  SMS has been the king of communication for half a decade now, and it’s not giving up the crown anytime soon.

You can follow Josh on Twitter at @joshanisfeld.


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Josh Anisfeld is an Account Group Supervisor working in social media at GolinHarris in Chicago. He is passionate about all things social, mobile, his wife and little boy Jonah.

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