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What’s Next for Texting?

Before we plot the future of texting, it’s helpful to understand its history

Twenty years ago, a software engineer named Neil Papworth kicked off the holidays - and a communications revolution - by sending the world's first text message via phone. The message, appropriately enough, was "Merry Christmas."

It took a few more Christmases before text messaging caught on, but ever since we've been able to send text messages to subscribers on different mobile operator networks, it has been nothing but thumbs up for texting. Thanks to the rise in mobile subscriptions, the usage of texting has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2011, for the first time in history, text messaging surpassed voice as the most popular application for mobile phones.

And then the unexpected happened: the number of text messages sent in the U.S. actually declined between the second and third quarter of 2012, according to published reports. It was a small decline, mind you, on the scale of two percent or so. For a technology where quantum annual leaps in usage have been the norm, however, a two-percent decline has the potential to be huge.

Let's make a few assumptions, including that the report is accurate (and it is worth noting that some don't agree). Let's also assume this isn't a one-time anomaly. What does a slight decline really mean? There are a few popular theories:

Theory #1: We've reached a saturation point for text messaging.
There are always some people who will grow tired of a technology after a few years, whether it's text messaging or social media. (Remember when people were leaving Facebook a few years ago?) Text messaging continues to rise where it counts. Younger demographics, like 12-to-15-year-olds who represent the paying customers of tomorrow, continue to be text junkies.

Theory #2: New apps like Skype are eating into the texting market.
Skype poses more of a threat to traditional voice services - not surprising since that's what it was originally designed to displace. The Skype application has to be loaded on the device and active to have a conversation. Text messaging uses a standards-based protocol, so any device assigned a mobile number can send and receive text messages right out of the box.

Theory #3: Text messaging is getting too expensive.
Pay-per-use plans may have kept more people with their thumbs and cash in their pockets. Operators responded with fixed-price, unlimited-usage plans. In the U.S., you can get unlimited calling and texting for under $40 a month, making it affordable to practically anyone.

The fourth possibility is one I see in my own household. Texting is no longer constrained to communications between mobile networks. Many devices are able to send and receive text messages through an Internet connection. Apple's iMessage or Blackberry Messenger are great examples of this trend.

In fact, text messaging has never really stopped evolving. The idea of measuring the value of text messaging by the quantity of messages sent over the mobile network may ultimately sell the technology short.

Before we plot the future of texting, it's helpful to understand its history. Texting grew out of a technology known as Short Message Service (SMS). SMS originally allowed a person to send data-based communications to a mobile phone over the signaling channel rather than the more bandwidth-precious media channel. In fact, in the beginning, mobile phones could not send SMS messages. Nokia was the first manufacturer with a suite of GSM phones to support SMS messaging. Finally as the 20th century came to a close, you were able to send text messages between mobile networks, ushering in the any-to-any text messaging environment that we enjoy today.

In 2000, the average U.S. mobile phone user sent nearly 35 text messages per month. By 2007, text messages outnumbered phone calls. And in 2011, text eclipsed voice as the top application for mobile devices in the U.S. Despite the rapid rise in popularity, the underlying technology behind texting remained largely unchanged. Texts still relied on SMS and limited communications to the same 160-character confines established (somewhat arbitrarily) more than two decades ago. Innovation hasn't been the driver for the adoption of this communication method. Rather, texting's popularity can be traced to contributing market factors, few of which were imagined 20 years ago.

Smartphones, Social Media and Number Portability
Text messaging on a standard cellphone was hit or miss, which meant you hoped you hit the right key when typing your message. Then came BlackBerries and iPhones - smartphones that combined the elements of a laptop computer (complete with an operating system and independent keyboard) and a mobile phone. Suddenly, millions of people were finding a new use for those opposable thumbs. The convenience of texting combined with the constant presence of smartphones (unlike laptops, smartphones seldom leave our sides) made it a preferred choice over traditional email. Early studies proved that people were more likely to read a text rather than an email.

Social media platforms, notably Twitter, also played to the strengths of text messaging by encouraging short, frequent communications in favor of longer, fewer conversations. In fact, Twitter even found SMS to be a bit longwinded, trimming the maximum length of a tweet to a svelte 140 characters. People rediscovered their pithy side as vowels slowly began disappearing from the language, all the while fueling the legitimacy of texting as a form of creative and personal expression.

A less obvious but no less important factor in the rise of texting was the creation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This act allows consumers to keep their phone numbers when choosing a new Communications Service Provider (CSP) - even when switching from a wireline to a wireless provider. By allowing phone customers to move their phone numbers freely between CSPs, Americans had unprecedented freedom of communication. Mobile phones, once viewed as a supplemental service to a primary landline, instead became the primary phone service for many customers who found they could keep their identity and cut their costs by going mobile 24/7. In a world where smartphones have an average lifespan of two years, the ability to upgrade your phone and change your service without changing your phone number can't be undervalued.

Texting: The Next 20 Years
I don't believe texting is going away. Anyone with teenage children knows exactly what I mean. Rather, I think it's changing to become a more ubiquitous form of communication. You see, we live in a world where communications overload is a fact of life. We have RSS feeds at the bottom of our TV screens, we text while we talk, we carry phones with built-in video cameras. In a world where everyone is making noise, the challenge is to rise above the noise. And I think that's where texting fits in the future: as a way to cut through the noise.

Take for example a technology like Common Short Codes (CSCs), which can replace a standard phone number with a four-digit number for the purpose of sending text messages. You've seen these used on television programs that encourage audience voting (e.g., American Idol, Dancing with the Stars), but CSCs are increasingly being purchased by businesses to aid in text-based marketing efforts. Right now, you're probably thinking - Great, more marketing, just what the world needs. In fact, text-based marketing is exactly what the world needs. This form of marketing allows businesses and their customers to have meaningful conversations based on customer-selected criteria. In other words, you're not just another name on an email distribution list. With CSC-based marketing, consumers select the kind of communications they receive, how they receive them and engage businesses on their own terms.

For the time being, text messaging has a distinct advantage over other forms of communication when it comes to consumer marketing. On the one hand, they're less intrusive than voice calls, which are often perceived as cold (in the case of pre-recorded calls) or overly aggressive live calls. And, because the industry has set guidelines for the use of text messaging, issues like spamming have so far proven to be limited.

When I talk to CSPs, I hear excitement in their voices when they talk about the future of text messaging. They see texting as a real revenue driver, especially from business customers who are just beginning to explore the value of mobile communications. These CSPs understand that communication isn't about which service you use the most (texting, voice, video) but how you use those services to stay connected to the world around you.

Is texting over the hill at 20? Doubtful. As a society, we are hooked on the direct and real-time communication enabled by texting. Our mobile devices unlock a world of possibilities and the deciding factor is typically convenience. In the first 20 years of SMS, we went from a simple intra-network "Merry Christmas" to accessibility on any network. It is possible that the next 20 years will bring us ubiquitous texting across many applications including personal communications, opt-in business uses and a burgeoning machine-to-machine environment.

More Stories By Gary Zimmerman

Gary Zimmerman is Senior Director of Marketing at Neustar. He and his team deliver the educational and outbound marketing efforts for Carrier Services. He has over 30 years of experience in telecommunications management in both the carrier and enterprise setting.

Gary spent twenty years at AT&T where he developed ordering, billing, and international clearinghouse systems. He has successfully launched and managed products including international data services for global 500 companies, a software-as-a-service offering in Japan, and data networking / security offerings for the mid-market.

Prior to joining Neustar, Gary was a Vice President and founding member of an enterprise software company that grew into a $30 million dollar concern during his tenure.

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