The Last SMS

Texting has become an integral part of mobile communications for most people--so much so that it has replaced a lot of voice calls. Why call when you can just send a quick text?

Yet there are signs that texting's days are numbered. To be clear, the desire to send and receive short messages isn't going away--but the need to send them via the SMS protocol may become extinct.

Take Twitter, for example. When Twitter started out, the only way you could get it on your phone was to consume it via text message. That quickly became enormously expensive for the company. As smart phones grew in popularity, developers built mobile apps using Twitter's API, moving the majority of tweets off of SMS and into the data stream. The group messaging apps are undoubtedly going to move in the same direction. If you're a developer, why would you use costly SMS when you can send free messages over data--unless you really have to because of coverage problems or phone sophistication?  Those are two issues that are definitely going away. When I see Virgin supplying unlimited data /pay as you go phones on Android, it makes me think that you’re only one or two replacement cycles away from near 100% smartphone penetration.  Why would you even get a feature phone these days?  Being prohibitively expensive to develop on as you scale may ultimately be the death of SMS innovation from the product side.

It was interesting to hear Facebook’s perspective on messaging when they announced their new communications platform:

“Relatively soon, we'll probably all stop using arbitrary ten digit numbers and bizarre sequences of characters to contact each other. We will just select friends by name and be able to share with them instantly.”

I think about this a lot when I’m at my desk at work and someone texts me.  I often don’t notice it, because my phone isn’t the screen that’s open.  The message is intended for me, not for the phone, so why can’t our communications system just find me wherever I am?  Twitter, as I use it, is a good proxy for that.  DMs go to my phone, through RockMelt, and Tweetdeck all at the same time, so if you can DM me, that’s the best chance I’ll get it.  Presence is an advantage that data based messaging will always have over SMS. 

The other advantage that messages sent over data protocols gives you is deliverability.  BBM proved that individuals want deliverability messages and the same goes for devs.  If you’re a developer building in some kind of communications too, you have no idea whether or not the text actually got sent.  If you’re using an third party to send your texts, you’re probably not going to be able to diligence any dropped messages up to the carrier level either. 

So the question is, when we’re all plugged into smart phones with data connections and push notification systems, why would anyone ever send a text message?