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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Text messages: today's easy way to send a letter

Today, billions of text messages fly through the airwaves every day, and they are a bedrock of revenue and profit for the world's telecommunications companies. They have inspired their own shorthand in languages written around the world; some relationships live and die on the strength of the 160-character, thumb-typed phone texts.

Though textos still convey holiday greetings - New Year's is the busiest texting day of the year - they also are used to vote for politicians and celebrities, play trivia games and enter quiz shows, buy rugby and concert tickets, organize rallies and turn out the opposition, alert travelers to transportation delays, warn groups of people of weather and other emergency situations, advertise products and services, lend money and let you know if your bank account is overdrawn.

"It is a cultural phenomenon," said Mike Short, chairman of the Mobile Data Association in England, where the number of text messages sent each week just passed one billion, about 25 percent higher than a year earlier.

Few experts could come up with a recent, reliable figure for the number of total texts sent in the course of a year; Short ballparked it at two trillion to three trillion. Yet communications experts are divided about whether the lowly text message will survive another 15 years.

Various alternative phone messaging systems that demand more technology - like the chatty back-and-forth of instant messaging, the wish-you-were-here quality of photo messages, or e-mail messages transmitted via the Internet - are waiting in the wings to overtake the SMS, the technical term for the industry's "short message service."

The cost and complexity of the newer rivals have so far held them back. For any system to take off, it needs to work seamlessly across the networks of all of the scores of mobile carriers around the world, a time-consuming process of bilateral negotiations that delayed the boom in texting until years after its creation.

In December 1992, just sending "Merry Christmas" to a single phone was complex. For its time, when cellphones themselves were still a novelty, the text message sent to the Vodafone engineers "was quite a feat," Short said.

Jarvis and the teams at the predecessor companies of Vodafone and Airwide Solutions, where Papworth works, intended their text experiments as an enhancement for pagers, the popular communications gadget of the day for executives.

Brennan Hayden, who was an engineer in the 1990s for an Irish wireless company, Aldiscon, which invested in text messaging, said few people in telecommunications believed at the time that it would take off as a communications medium of its own.

"They said people would never use it, they wouldn't be bothered to type messages on a phone," said Hayden, now with WirelessDeveloper Agency in Michigan.

"I always believed in it," he said. "I believed it could actually be a force to change the world."

In June 1993, Hayden sent the first commercial text message in Los Angeles. His SMS, meant to signify the birth of a new form of communications, was "burp."

Jay Seaton, chief marketing officer at Airwide, believes the messaging types are "not mutually exclusive" and that people will use the kind that works for them. In western nations, for instance, texting is favored by the young.

"The industry is still struggling to find new services that are anywhere near as popular and profitable," said John Delaney, principal analyst at Ovum, who attended an anniversary party that Airwide held in London this week. "SMS is simple, ubiquitous, easy to use and cost-effective.

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