January 31, 2014

The Rise and Fall of SMS Texting


You may find this hard to believe, but SMS texting is on the decline. SMS texts are sent through your cell phone provider; not to be confused with instant messaging apps like iMessage. Why do I make this distinction? The annual technology predictions report by Deloitte predicts that, “in 2014 Instant Messaging (IM) services on mobile phones will carry more than twice the volume (50 billion versus 21 billion per day) of messages sent via SMS globally.” This decline in SMS messaging is somewhat surprising since texting is only about 20 years old. However, Emerson College marketing professor and BIGfish president David Gerzof Richard notes, “These are sort of the cycles that we’re seeing in technology development.” Given the fast pace of the tech industry, it’s actually surprising SMS texting is still relevant at all.

It is interesting to see how far texting has come since its inception. As this article notes, the idea of SMS texting was developed by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert in 1984. However, it was not until 1992 that Neil Papworth sent the first text message. The message read “Merry Christmas,” and was sent by PC because most mobile phones at the time did not have keyboards. In 1993, Nokia became the first handset manufacturer to create an entire phone line that supported user-sending of SMS text messages and in 1997, Nokia also became the first manufacturer to produce a mobile phone with a full keyboard. It wasn’t until 1999 that text messages could be exchanged across different networks. This new feature made SMS incredibly popular and in 2007, Americans sent and received more text messages than phone calls.

As with most trends these days, the popularity of SMS texting was short-lived. According to CTIA, there has been a steady decline in texting since 2009. Although texting grew by 55.5% in 2009, this fell to 31.3% in 2010 and then 12.3% in 2011. The declining growth rate hit new lows when the number of sms texts sent and received decreased in 2012. In addition, the article states, “Of the 326 million estimated wireless subscriber connections in the US [in 2012], 22 million were wireless-enabled tablets, laptops and modems (up from 20 million in 2011) and 152 million were smartphones, up 36% from 112 million in 2011.” This is important to note because as users move away from SMS texting, they are increasingly flocking to the instant messaging apps that are available on these devices.

In a recent interview with NPR, David Gerzof Richard argued that this decline in SMS growth is likely to continue due to the increased use of messaging apps. Gerzof Richard suggests several reasons:

You pay for texts:

“With a texting plan from your cell phone provider, you usually pay to send text messages. With instant messaging services, including Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp, the app is free. You pay for a data plan — your access to the Internet — but you’re not billed for your messages.”

With the release of BlackBerry’s BBM feature in 2006, SMS texting took its first hit from an instant messaging service. Since then the surge in smartphones, continued charges for SMS text messages, and falling data prices have encouraged a wide range of competitors, such as applications with direct messaging capabilities, social media messaging, and photo sharing platforms.

You can do more with instant messages:

When looking at direct messaging services, Apple’s iMessage is one of the leading platforms. This app makes it easy for multiple people to participate in a single conversation, whereas with SMS texting, messages are sent separately to each person. With iMessage, users can also utilize emoticons as well as easily send photos and videos from one’s phone. In addition, there has been an increase in social media integration and messaging services. Facebook, Twitter, and more recently Instagram, have made it easier to interact with friends through chat and direct messages. Lastly, Snapchat made picture sharing even more popular by introducing time limits on how long a message can be seen.

You don’t have to worry about phone numbers:

“It looks like we’re starting to move in a direction where the younger generation isn’t thinking in terms of phone numbers, but in terms of usernames and handles,” Gerzof Richard says. Most messaging apps don’t need phone numbers at all. Instead, they easily link to your existing social media sites and harvest your contacts from your friend lists.

Where young people go, their elders will follow:

Deloitte’s annual technology predictions report also mentions that this year there will be an increase in the number of smartphones bought by people over 55. Gerzof Richard says this will drive even more people to instant messaging. In trying to keep track of and better connect with their kids, people over 55 have ventured into the realm of social media platforms. However, the use of social media platforms and smartphones transcends just parenting. With increased smartphone use, people over 55 are likely to be more comfortable with alternate modes of communication and therefore use SMS text messaging less.

With the consistent growth of smartphone usage, it will be interesting to follow the decline of SMS texting. In 2014, instant messaging services are predicted to account for 50 billion messages sent globally per day. That is double the number of SMS text messages that will be sent this year! Do you think SMS text messaging can make a comeback?

Dana Harvey

BIG fish PR is an unconventional agency that helps its clients redefine their industries.