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The information age has sometimes been punctuated by quiet revolutions, which were as unexpected in timing as they were profound in impact. The Simple Messaging Service (SMS), for example, was designed over twenty years ago as a mechanism for notification messages to be sent to and from mobile handsets. While initial uptake was slow, it was latched upon by teenagers and grandparents alike, as a cheap way of conversing.
Cheap for a while, at least - even as pundits were panicking over the demise of the English language, so were service providers strategising about how to monetise the service. And monetise it they did - the mere pennies charged for each message were, and still are several orders of magnitude greater than their base cost. By 2010 6.1 trillion messages were being sent per year globally, reaping $116 billion for network operators.
In recent times however, it has started to look like SMS might be superseded by services set to embrace, then engulf the lowly messaging facility. First off the mark was Skype, which has provided gateway services to send SMS messages from desktop or smartphone for a few years now. Similarly, Twitter enables messages to be sent via SMS and then converted.
It has started to look like SMS might be superseded by services set to embrace, then engulf the lowly messaging facility
Such capabilities are relatively clunky - they require some configuration, and can incur additional costs. But technology is getting simpler. More recently we have seen Apple's iMessage evolve into a genuinely integrated solution - at least for the fruiterati. Announced in June 2011, iMessage enables Apple users to send and receive messages between desktops and iPhones using the Internet; where that is not available, messages will automatically be forwarded via SMS.
By October last year Apple claimed that 300 billion messages had been sent via iMessage which, given that the majority will be Internet-based, suggests a significant hit on service provider revenues. Indeed, a small but measurable decline in SMS texts was later blamed on the still-youthful service.
It is perhaps no coincidence that mobile providers are increasingly offering unfeasibly large numbers of texts (if not unlimited texts) as part of the plan - which of course has an impact on their overall profitability. Meanwhile, just this week, another player has entered the fray - Facebook - offering an integrated Facebook Messenger app to handle both Facebook and SMS messages. No doubt Microsoft - Skype's new(ish) owner, will not be far behind in integrating MSN, Skype and SMS messages - and who knows what tricks Google and Blackberry have up their sleeves.
The new kids on the block are banking on the success of their own ecosystem models, from Apple's walled garden to Facebook's ever-extending tendrils and Microsoft's better together, no, really approach. This, ultimately divisive approach suggests we shall enter a period of chaos (it is already difficult to manage conversations across Twitter, Facebook, Skype and so on) before a common standard is developed enabling cross-platform interoperability.
We can only hope this comes to pass, but in the meantime SMS could vanish from sight. It may never die as a technology but it could well cease to have visible relevance, morphed into a mere transport mechanism by the 'smarter' services we are all starting to adopt. Let us hope that cross-platform messaging becomes more than an aspiration, otherwise we might look back on the days of 'simple' messaging with more than just nostalgia.