Text messaging turns 20, but don't call it ready for retirement

At the ripe old age of 20, text messaging is still a popular way to communicate, but there are signs that its best days are behind it.

At the ripe old age of 20, text messaging is still a popular way to communicate, but there are signs that its best days are behind it.

The SMS was born on December 3, 20 years after Neil Papworth, an engineer for Sema Group in the United Kingdom, sent a "Merry Christmas" greeting from a personal computer to the oversized cellphone of Vodafone Director Richard Jarvis.

Nowadays, cell phone users around the world send more than 7 trillion text messages per year. But in November, average text messaging per U.S. user declined for the first time, from 696 messages per month to 678 messages per month. This could be the first sign of shift away from the 160-character SMS, but certainly not its demise.

The decline can be easily blamed on several factors: Web-based communications such as Facebook and Twitter provide an alternative to SMS, both through one-on-one messaging and through public or semi-private posts to large swaths of other users. E-mail is a major factor as well, given how easy it is to access on a smartphone.

Apple's iMessage may also have caused a decline, due to the way it automatically replaces SMS between any two iPhone users. Without any extra effort, iPhone users may now send fewer traditional text messages. As smartphone adoption grows, so too will these alternative means of communication.

Wireless carriers aren't exactly encouraging users to stick with the text message, either. AT&T killed its mid-tier text messaging plans last year, forcing new subscribers to either pay per text or buy an unlimited plan. Texting plans on T-Mobile and Sprint are also unlimited-or-nothing, and Verizon requires all new subscribers onto its "Share Everything" plans, which include unlimited text messaging.

For users who don't want to pay for an unlimited plan, an individual text costs about 10,000,000 percent more than its data is worth, as Gizmodo once noted. Just last week, Rick Falvinge pointed out that telcos charge more for a text message than the price of sending data from Mars . The incentive to use alternatives is undeniable.

But does all of this spell certain doom for the SMS? Not really.

For one thing, technologies rarely die despite the proclamations of pundits. They simply become less relevant over time. If you've ever sent or received an e-mail, Facebook message or Twitter mention where in the past a text message alone would have sufficed, you're already experiencing the shift away from SMS. Still, chances are you continue to rely on text messages on a regular basis.

Even in decline, the text message will serve a valuable purpose. It's still the fastest and easiest way to reach people regardless of their preference in phone type, social network or wireless carrier, and that's not going to change. At 20, the SMS doesn't need to retire, it just needs to settle into its older age.

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Jared Newman

PC World (US online)
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