Phone Companies Attempt to Pump Up Short Messaging in US
Byline: Tamara Chuang
Dennis Chang, a Seal Beach
resident, trained his right thumb to type short text messages on his cell phone
-- he doesn't even have to look. He uses the messages to chat discreetly with
his girlfriend at work or carry on a conversation in a noisy restaurant.
He barely remembers what life was like before SMS, or short messaging service,
currently the star of a spate of TV commercials by telecom companies.
"Just about everyone I know uses it religiously, doing everything from
forwarding cute jokes and cartoons around to lengthy conversations that would
probably be better-served by picking up the phone and dialing," said Chang, 27 a
Though most of Chang's friends also use SMS, he concedes that "they all use it
to communicate with friends and family overseas."
And there's the rub.
While SMS has exploded in Europe and Japan, the phenomenon has so far been
ignored by most Americans. But recent moves by phone companies to make SMS
easier to use, plus marketing campaigns promoting it, could be just the prod
this nation needs.
America has a long way to go. While a projected 1.5 billion text messages will
be sent by American users this year, Europe already averages 30 billion per
month, according to market researcher International Data Corp.
"In Japan, it's considered rude to yap on your cell phone in the subway, so kids
sit next to each other and SMS," said Doug Palladini, director of Cynic Youth +
Alternative Marketing, a Santa Ana company that tracks youth trends. "In
Scandinavia (home to Nokia and Ericsson) kids can SMS faster then they can
But in the states, said Palladini, SMS just hasn't caught on. "Right now, most
kids are still IMing (Instant Messaging on personal computers)," he said. "It's
not happening here."
SMS proliferated overseas for several reasons. For one, fewer households
overseas have PCs, so using a cell phone to message someone was the best
alternative, especially for kids. You type a message on the phone's keypad, such
as "LTNS" (Long time no see), enter a friend's phone number and hit send.
Text messaging also costs less than a cell-phone call in Europe or Asia. And
Europe and most of Asia use one wireless text system, called GSM, or Global
Satellite for Mobile communication. In the United States, there's GSM and a
number of other, incompatible technologies, resulting in delays in getting
messages or worse, the inability to send messages to friends on other networks.
One convert, Joy Gumz, gave up on SMS after moving back to the United States two
years ago from Switzerland.
"I don't even use a cell phone anymore. The number of dropped calls was too
annoying," said Gumz, a Mission Viejo software consultant who worked overseas
for a year. "But if I ever work in Europe again, that would be the first
purchase I would make."
In the United States, text messaging is a service from your cell phone company
that costs up to 10 cents per message. You must have the right phone and you pay
when you use it.
But one of the biggest obstacles has been the wireless-phone companies, which
include AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Cingular, Nextel, VoiceStream and
Sprint PCS. Until recently, they didn't allow their customers to send or receive
messages to or from friends on other phone networks.
That began to change in November, when AT&T opened its system to other phone
companies. Cingular followed last month, and Verizon opened up earlier this
"SMS traffic is up 500 percent in the last five to six months, although there
was a very small number to begin with," said Scott Ellison, an analyst with
International Data Corp.
AT&T kicked off its text-messaging thumb campaign earlier this year with mLife,
pitching a wireless way of living. Remember the mysterious mLife TV commercials
that debuted during the Super Bowl?
Since then, AT&T says, text messaging on its network has increased 109 percent.
Last month, 42 percent of the messages generated on AT&T's network were sent to
customers of other networks.
At the same time it opened its network to rivals, AT&T began selling only SMS-ready
phones and stopped charging for incoming messages. By making the service
available to all customers, the company hopes to encourage the spread of SMS.
"It's really a viral campaign. People realize how to use it because friends send
them a message," said Janna Ucich, senior product marketing manager for AT&T
Wireless. "The technology is only good if your friends also have it."
Will it really take off?
Maybe when it starts making money, said David Mock, a Placentia resident and
author of "Tapping into Wireless," a book on wireless-technology investing. When
teen-agers glommed on to it in Europe and Asia, there was incentive to create
content, like custom ring tones and simple graphics. Wireless carriers like NTT
DoCoMo in Japan successfully bundled Web surfing and SMS into what it called
iMode. AT&T Wireless began offering a similar "mMode" service this week.
"It wasn't until they realized that `Hey, we could actually make money on
this,'" Mock said. "That has yet to happen in the U.S."
SMS will become mainstream eventually, said Ellison, with IDC.
"Right now, it's kind of a fun thing to do, but it will become more standard in
business," he said. "We think over time, business will be a huge market. Because
when you think about it, it's essentially a short e-mail."
While he doesn't use it himself, Ellison predicts that he will someday for the
same reason others will adapt.
"No one has ever sent me a message," he said. "But if my boss SMS's me, I'll be