As the 20th anniversary of the text message came and passed last week, many in the tech and mobile business world (including Dan Rowinski of ReadWrite) couldn’t help but declare the death of SMS, claiming that text messaging is finally over the hill and on a one-way path to irrelevance. This was after mobile analyst Chetan Sharma announced that the average number of monthly texts in the U.S. fell for the first time, by 3%.
While analysts and market watchers have good reason to think that the 160-character communication method won’t be seeing a historic comeback given the numerous free options available, the most recent death knells completely ignore how pervasive the traditional text message is in our communication culture and why that guarantees its survival right alongside email and the phone call.
They also ignore the fact that in the face of a decline in traditional text messaging, U.S. carriers will likely begin to buckle over keeping high rate plans, giving up their once-astronomical text profits for a chance to keep the market from slipping away completely.
It should go without saying that some communication media are used more than others depending on the technological climate, but the text message is nowhere near going the way of the fax machine for three reasons: it’s universal; it’s not confined to an OS or social network; and a huge chunk of the Internet generation grew up with it as an integral social tool.
Bridging Mobile Gaps
Not only does SMS support billions of phones worldwide, it simultaneously bridges numerous technological gaps in modern mobile tech - the distance between a regular cellphone and a smartphone, from carrier to carrier and across continents as well.
It’s very easy to write off such universality as a convenient perk of people’s reluctance to upgrade to a smartphone, but a data plan and a touch screen shouldn't be a requirement to use what is now one of the world’s most basic communication services.
Competition From Within A Walled Garden
Text messaging is as simple as it gets, and anything more than direct one-on-one communication involves dragging a consumer into a new environment with restrictions. That’s unfortunately exactly what you get with a good chunk of the messaging competition.
Two of the biggest of these competitors are Apple’s iMessage and Facebook Messenger. As for Apple’s offering, it’s quite obvious to see where the setbacks are in relying exclusively on an device-specific platform. Not only does it restrict you to someone with both an iPhone and the most recent iOS update, but iMessage has been known to crash quite often. Such outages can you leave you wondering whether or not any of your green bubbled texts have actually gone through, which is especially troublesome if you're trying to convey something important.
But at least Apple knows that to compete with SMS, you have to drill into the heart of where we’re used to texting, turning on iMessage automatically when it can and keeping it off when it has to. Facebook Messenger on the other hand seems to believe users will just shrug off massive annoyances and use its service as a perfect stand-in.
Facebook Doesn't Get It
For instance, the online visibility aspect and mandatory read receipt feature fundamentally alters how people can use Facebook as a communication platform. Having to be visible to an entire trove of Facebook friends removes a large level of intimacy and control that text messaging retains, often limiting the conversations you have on it to quick back-and-forths concerning a problem.
You can of course exclude some people or only be visible to a select few, but that involves the constant curation of lists.
As for forcing you to let others see when you’ve read your messages, this adds a disastrous level of urgency to a conversation and is one of many issues, alongside things like email push notifications, says ReadWrite’s Jon Mitchell, that lie at the heart of potential tech overload.
Being able to mitigate the flow of a conversation is inherent to non-verbal communication. Forcing users to either evade looking at the flashing chat tab in on their Facebook page, appear to be ignoring their friends or feel pressured to chat in constant real-time is staunchly unappealing. Even Apple’s iMessage allows you to disable the read receipt feature that is unchangeable in Facebook Messenger unless you download a third-party browser extension.
There are obviously lesser known alternatives, as well as some more elegant and simplified social network-based chat services, like the collection of Google services - Chat, Voice, Hangouts and Huddles. But again, the requirement that one have a Google email address, a Google Voice number, a Google+ account, and the Google+ mobile app downloaded is a little bit more complicated than just having a phone number and a service plan.
The Text Message Generation
With regard to many of my smartphone-owning friends, the text message is still the ground floor, with everything else from FaceTime and Skype to Facebook Messenger and G Chat just an extension. That’s likely because our generation - those who got cell phones right alongside their parents in or around middle school - latched onto text messaging as the natural evolution of services like AOL Instant Messenger, before there were alternatives and high monthly texting plans just came with the territory.
This attrition of social weight to the text message transformed it from a platform and perpetuated its popularity throughout the rise of the smartphone and social networks titans and the endless amount of alternatives aiming their sights at SMS. The way U.S. youth culture latched onto texting created entirely new social constructs, from the dangers of doing so while driving to the illegality of ‘sexting’ and cyber harassment.
Even today, the simplest form of establishing communication between a new acquaintance is likely the text message. It carries its own specific weight, somewhere between the professionalism of email and the ambiguity of friending on Facebook.
The Biggest Threat To Texting
As for the biggest threat to texting, it’s hard to place bets on anything but WhatsApp, the closest to a direct replacement of a phone’s text messaging client as possible. The makers of WhatsApp understand that messaging should not be confined within a social network or to a specific device with a limiting OS. They do that by offering all the tech benefits of smartphone communication while expanding the social aspect of their interface about as far as AIM, even opting to liken your contact list of friends who have also downloaded the app to a ‘buddy list’.
While co-founders and former Yahoo employees Jan Joum and Brian Acton keep a very low profile, their ambitions are large: tear down the carriers’ control of messaging, and do it while trumpeting an anti-advertising mantra that goes so far as to quote Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. Their mission in the simplest of terms, “Because we want to build a better SMS alternative. Because we believe we can. Because someday very soon everybody will have a smartphone,” reads their website.
They are certainly right about the inevitability of the smartphone. And 10 billion messages per day as of August 2012 is nothing to scoff at. But if the text message decline proves to be more slippery than everyone anticipates, don't be surprised to see carriers begin a price war to hang on to customers.
Whether services like WhatsApp, or the colossal tech companies’ own offerings, will suit up for the battle is uncertain. But what is clear is that SMS will be sticking around for a while, and won’t go without a fight when the time does come.