SMS: Mobile data's dark horse hits its stride

The telescope that much of the IT world has aimed at emerging GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and 3G (third-generation) mobile data services may be overlooking a less glamorous technology that's evolving into one of the biggest services on the horizon.

SMS (short message service) has been available for years on GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phones, and has become a pervasive form of communication in some countries. Now it's a hotbed of activity as new services, more interconnection, and extensions of the technology are bringing benefits to cellphone users in many countries. In light of disappointment among many users and service providers with WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) over current circuit-switched mobile networks, SMS is becoming an increasingly popular medium for mobile data services.

"These days, with the disillusionment of WAP, people are looking more into SMS," said Eno Tsin, chief technology officer of Media60X Co. Ltd., in Hong Kong, which develops software for creating GSM-based Internet services on WAP as well as SMS.

Recently unveiled services let students at Manila's De La Salle University get up-to-date information on what courses are available, IT managers be notified automatically of virus fixes from Symantec Corp. and corporations keep their employees informed using GlobalNet Telecommunication International Ltd.'s Mobile Information Management Platform.

SMS is designed for sending plain text messages of 160 characters or less from one phone to another or from a PC to a phone. Because the messages are small, it can be an efficient way to get information across a circuit-switched network that was never intended for big downloads. SMS doesn't require a dedicated circuit that stays up throughout a conversation, so users are charged per message and avoid airtime charges.

Low cost is one reason SMS has become a phenomenon in the Philippines, the world's largest SMS market, which has had relatively high domestic telephone charges. There, SMS played a key role in organizing mass opposition movement that eventually toppled to former President Joseph Estrada in January. It has thrived in many other locations as well, however. Mobile technology company Nokia Corp. estimates 12 billion SMS messages were sent in October 2000, and L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co. pegs the number at 15 billion. Nokia expects the total for October this year to reach 100 billion.

Usage could surge even more as more people can be reached and costs decline in some markets. In April, mobile operators in Hong Kong plan to interconnect their networks so that SMS messages can be sent among customers of different companies. Interconnection of different operators' networks has been seen to boost SMS usage in the UK and France. Also in Hong Kong, operators recently stopped charging for receiving a message and now charge only the sender. In the Philippines, carriers have begun offering fixed-line SMS services that let users without mobile phones send messages using the keypad and receive them through text-to-speech synthesis.

If messaging is the first "killer app" of high-speed mobile data, as some analysts have predicted, SMS is well positioned to continue playing that role. A system integration deal announced last month between America Online Inc., operator of the popular AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ instant-messaging services, could quickly bring those traditionally PC-based chat systems to mobile phones around the world. AOL already has signed deals with operators in the U.S. and Hong Kong.

Over the next few years, SMS will become an even richer service, with new specifications allowing users to add image and sound attachments to their messages. EMS (Extended Message Service), due to be supported in phones coming out in the next few months, will add the capability to use a variety of typefaces and attach images. Multimedia Message Service (MMS), due in phones coming out around the end of this year, will include a built-in media editor for preparing messages and offer even more possibilities.

"(With MMS) People will be able to go out and take snapshots with a (digital) camera and send those to friends. These pictures could be visible with today's screens (on mobile phones), but you'll see a move towards grayscale screens and eventually color," said Mikael Westmark, spokesman for Ericsson Consumer Products division, in Stockholm.

"Operators will have new services to sell to subscribers," he added. "Imagine signing up for a daily cartoon, or an animated weather report."

Although MMS will be offered on standard GSM phones, it is designed to take advantage of the higher bandwidth soon to be offered by 115K-bps (bit per second) GPRS terminals, and later by 384K-bps 3G phones, according to Ericsson.

Meanwhile, this leaves SMS with an advantage over MMS and also over WAP, much maligned because of its slow response over traditional circuit networks. SMS is fast, even over slow networks, and SMS users don't have to scroll through lengthy menus to receive the content they want.

The "push" quality of SMS is drawing some service providers to the technology after disappointing market response to WAP.

"WAP is clumsy on top of 2G (current second-generation) networks and the existing handset. As a result, people don't use WAP that much. If you try to offer some of the services ... with SMS, that's a slightly different story," Media60X's Tsin said.

Service providers can offer interactive services based on SMS, in which the user sends a message as a command and gets an automated response from a server. That user wouldn't have to wait for a dial-up connection.

The technology may also offer new hope for some Web portals after disappointing responses to WAP offerings and poor results for advertising-based business models. China-based Web portal operator Inc. announced earlier this year that it expects to make SMS-based content delivery a major source of revenue. It has offered WAP services, but few users in China have WAP handsets, whereas almost all mobile phones there can receive SMS.

A trial of such services was held last year during the Summer Olympics. Users went to the Web portal and subscribed to certain types of Olympics news, which was then delivered to their handsets over China Mobile Communications Corp.'s network, the largest mobile network in China.

"With the WAP phone, people dial in on the WAP and then use the buttons and keypad to pick their services, so it can become cumbersome," said Victor Koo, senior vice president of business development at Sohu, in Beijing. The SMS subscription service "combines the strengths of both Web access and the mobile phone," he said.

A top executive of another China-oriented Internet company, Chinadotcom Corp., agreed such services offer an opportunity. Consumers still associate the Web with free content, he said.

"It's hard for companies to change that philosophy and start charging, The mobile phone offers an environment where people are used to paying for small transactions," said Peter Hamilton, chief operating officer of Hong Kong-based Chinadotcom, parent company of portals in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

However, despite the availability of handsets, the uptake of SMS in China has not been strong so far, some experts acknowledged. Part of the problem is the newness of the service there, where a Chinese-character form of SMS has only been available for about two years, according to Bjorn Zethraeus, general manager of mobile applications for Ericsson (China), in Beijing. Another problem, Zethraeus and others said, is most serious in China but goes well beyond: awkward keypad input systems. Users today have to punch a key multiple times for each character.

The next frontier, Zethraeus and many others in the industry agree, is voice recognition. Users eventually will request and receive information from a content portal strictly by speaking and listening, either through a processor in the phone or through a device on the network, or a combination of both, he said.

Simple text-to-speech conversion for Mandarin Chinese is possible today, for functions such as converting e-mail messages to voice for unified messaging, Zethraeus said. Voice navigation of a content portal may be possible within a year.

Although GPRS and, especially, 3G offer the possibility of mobile data applications no one can imagine today, humble SMS may represent a seed from which still-visionary services may grow.

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