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Is Texting (SMS) Killing Chat?

Is there a future for IM (Instant Messaging) as we know it? Or is it ripe for real innovation? Does it remain a killer application? Or are Skype, Yahoo, Aim, MSN etc... all fatally flawed? Why do mobile operators and handset manufacturers ignore the facts. Why does my mobile remain call centric in a text centric world? I don't know the answer. I did want a provocative intro, share some observations, note some reservations and almost jump to some conclusions..... I'll start with a story about my kids.

Early this year T-Mobile USA announced a special family deal for unlimited text messaging. Then it was $9.99 (all you could eat family of four) today the same option is $19.99. Concurrently they raised individual text message charges to 10cents for both receiving and sending from 5 cents. Until that point my kids had effectively been banned from text messaging. Something that may seem strange in other countries encouraged by other cost structures. I changed my plan. My kids now have unlimted text messaging.

The outcome. In every month since, my two kids (14 and 17) have averaged 500 text messages inbound and outbound. As a family we went from maybe 30 text messages a month to over 2000 (in and out combined). I've watched this pattern now for six months. It's a static level and my kids operate now in a different paradigm.

Changing Texting Observations.

  • Circle of Friends: The kids text within an inner circle. It's a relatively small group. From this group they like the interruptions or pings of a new message coming in. My son in particular will often text rather than call. They use text messaging in a real-time way. For the most part they answer and have short exchanges. Calls don't happen unless its free time or there is some quick organizing to do. Meeting where, driving etc.

  • Less IM: My daughter has all but abandoned AIM. My son continues to use IM systems however, it's not the primary mode of communication. The mobile is. From what I see / observe / and they have reported they use IM significantly less now than six months ago. Most of their friends I think are similar. They too have unlimited text messaging. I'd make some observations about their phones separately.

  • Locked Down. IM systems are often locked down. Privacy limits communications to buddies if a "spam" problem exists. The mobile is also locked down currently. It costs money to call or send a message.. although from their perspective messaging is now free. An important aspect and possible change here. Their mobile number is more important than their AIM handle. It's the always on connection for them. It's also privacy related.

  • Presence: The current availability, away, not available etc. presence message isn't doing anything to retain users. (I'll look at that in more detail in a separate post.) Where there is already intimacy with an inner circle of friends "you know" roughly what they are up to. Need proof? Why is it that voice centric IM clients like Skype simply result in chats "can you talk now / context?" first? Simply, the presence systems aren't adding major value.

My Reservations:
Let's face it. This is pretty anecdotal evidence from my point of view. Still I'd not make the comments without thinking about what I'm seeing both in India and the US concurrently. In some areas I can hold my kids up as average, in others I know they have many opportunities not available to others. What I'd conclude is their behavior is simply what happens when they can text all they want. Until recently that "all you want" existed only on IM and I've made other observations before about how that slight asynchronous nature is a plus for them. I'd note that they can not call all they want. We have a deal with T-Mobile that allows unlimited weekend and evening calling after 9:00pm plus free calling between us. You can imagine the minutes in those free zones. We share a family 800 minutes plan. The kids know they have 200 minutes each. That's basically 10 minutes calling per day. My daughter's total time regularly approaches 1000 minutes per month (This doesn't come close to her home phone usage). My son more like 600. Most of this is with a small circle of friends.

Additional Thoughts.

  • Mobile texting is cannibalizing AIM / Yahoo / MSN / Skype etc. Skype's saving grace may be it is best integrated with telephony and SMS.(Alas no SMS to Skype! and the rates!!!!!!!!). Despite lack of presence, profiles, and privacy controls, mobile texting appears to have an advantage over chat. It is simply in the palm of your hand.

  • Mobile IM clients: For the most part I'm not seeing them used. There is currently little reason to go via IM when you can go via a text message. There is no cost benefit and from a useability point of view launching such clients takes time and often involves more clicks than just sending the text message. It's also hard to keep these IM clients running on the mobile. I know I use them.

  • Mobile solutions are way behind in many areas. Presence, Profiles, Notifications etc. Texting remains very basic.

  • IM Instant Messaging may be losing to basic utility in the palm of one's hand. Using Skype all day I'd always prefer it over my mobile. Have you ever seen a mobile that is click to text? Can you set yours that way? I haven't! That's got to be typical of mobile operators that are working their wallets rather than what customers want. It seems clear to me. Text exchanges dwarf calls and yet mobiles remain call centric devices. And yes sometimes (Eg driving with a bluetooth headset) they need to be that way. I stop them texting when they are driving me in India!!!!!!!!

  • Second, texting is more unified than any chat system. For telephone numbers are simply more pervasive. No need to manage multiple systems and log-ons. Then for someone who came to texting via IM, I find the control the mobile operator has over my number scary. Similarly, email is pervasive, however the cost "zero" means that spam is the killer. Wait till that reaches your mobile.

  • Lastly, till recently I thought that the IM systems were increasingly having the upper hand with where mobile communications was going. The click to talk/chat paradigm, the easy sharing of files. Nice profiles, opportunities for social networking. Even the failed "presence" systems. The belief based on when everyone gets a 3G connection then IM will rule the mobile. I'd suggest that this is a battle that is far from over.

I'd also suggest that this IM/Text paradigm is the wrong way to think about the battle for your access. That could be another story and may keep me back blogging! Still what do you think? Does Texting really have a leg up on Chat? What does Texting (SMS) need to kill chat in the next generation? Will it come from Mobile Operators or somewhere else?

Note: Written while sleepless at 4:00am Indian Standard Time. My fifty plus hour trip this time really messed with my sleep patterns. Something that usually I don't have a problem with.


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Comments (2)

Hi Stuart
I think that you may well be onto something here
What about old farts like me though who are talking about things withg colleagues that require more context than texting allows?

My point is that in the wolrd of kids - I suspect that texting is the new grooming gossip (Dunbar) that keeps the group/tribe intact.

But can you talk about issues using text?

I find it hard enough like this
When In get stuxk with Jevon etc I need to talk - go to Skype

So have a look at Robin Dunbar and his theory of Speech as an expansion of grooming that freed human primates to do things and also groom to see my context here. I think that Teens - especially girls have to groom a lot to hold their social space and that texting - basically telling the other that I am in contact with yiou may be the ultra modern form of grooming???

This is exactly the reason I use a Blackberry. Blackberry Messenger, has presence (available, not available) emoticons, and obviously instant messaging. Of course, everyone needs a BBerry, to connect with them this way - but most business users do. The elegant part is in that I don't have to launch an application or worrry about it running - it is just there, as part of the Mobile OS.

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