The writing is on the wall. Or in this case, the messaging interface on your mobile phone. SMS, as we know it is on its deathbed. Don’t get me wrong. Short Messages or “texts” as its more popularly known is well alive and will continue to thrive into the next generation and the one after that. The one on the deathbed is its current avatar. A version that is controlled tightly by network operators and reaps billions of dollars in profits every year. The operator controlled SMS feature is grossly overpriced and was long overdue for a correction. Thanks to the new generation of smartphone OS’es, that correction is coming very soon.
Facebook introduced its Messenger app for mobile phones this week. This is a dedicated messaging app that is not part of its popular Facebook app for iOS and Android. It underscores how much value there is in the messaging business that eco-systems want the user locked into. Apple announced iMessage, a new feature debuting this fall in iOS5. This will allow iPhone users to communicate with each other – untethered figuratively to the operator and thus the cost of having a messaging plan. Google, as part of its Google+ social infrastructure launched Huddle, a mobile messaging app between Google+ users. All these messaging apps underline a key fact- messaging between mobile phone users does not have to use the carrier driven SMS infrastructure. There are cheaper (as in free) ways to message your friends and it can be done over WiFi or cellular infrastructure.
iMessage, while having the potential to be something really big is hampered by the fact that it is only between iPhones. While that is a sizeable and growing population around the world, it is only a portion of all smartphones. Which is why Facebook’s app and Google’s plus platforms work better. They work as apps on any smartphone and connect people on their platform- not just on a mobile OS. This means that Android could die tomorrow but people would still be using Google Plus(Huddle) on non-Android devices to exchange short messages. Facebook’s mobile solution also aims to reach a much broader audience. Apple’s rationale is easy to explain. It owns software and hardware and would like to offer its users a value added service that could potentially eliminate a carrier link and thus a cost paid by the customer.
The emergence of messaging as an integral part of the mobile OS experience and also the social networking medium (twitter messaging, Facebook messenger) also means that the two other major OS developers missing from the action must catch up- expect whatever follows Windows Phone 7- Mango to have in-built messaging of some form. Microsoft could also claim that their people centric OS already has facebook contacts baked into the OS which means Facebook messaging has always been a part of its experience. webOS will also have to build something similar into their OS- although they are starting to resemble a very fringe player at this point. That leaves us with Blackberry OS. One of the biggest selling points for RIM has been its extremely popular BBM service. While it continues to be a major selling point for the OS, the challengers are aiming for the one last bastion of RIM dominance. With iMessage, Facebook Messenger and Google+ Huddle, the final frontier of Blackberry domination would be conquered. RIM must be very worried about this.
Operators have reasons to be worried also. SMS is a huge revenue generator on little or no new investment and operating cost. The infrastructure is already in place. SMS is a negligible footprint on the pipe but generates wads of cash. But the emergence of iOS and Android supremacy means that operators have little to no choice in accepting the new services and applications that they enable. Instead, operators are choosing to go after a bigger pie in the form of mobile data revenue. Unlimited data plans are over barring Sprint which might also capitulate soon given that there is too much money involved. With tiered data plans, operators have a new and relatively untapped mother lode of revenue. SMS while significant and cheap to offer will eventually pale in revenue comparison with those of 3G/4G data packages. And they will continue to mine the feature phone users for SMS revenue until there is no feature phone user left!
As I was writing this post (over the last week actually), TechCrunch released an article pretty much suggesting the same thing in much less polite terms- Suck it SMS. GigaOM also has a nice article comparing all three tools. Looks like the thinking is the same everywhere- is it too soon or is it time to say it. R.I.P, SMS.