Apple isn’t going to kill SMS, but maybe Google can
iMessage is a proprietary system that will suck some of the wind out of SMS, but only a cross-platform system could truly deflate it
Apple’s iMessage sure is nifty, but we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves with some of the claims I’ve been reading about text messaging’s demise. Apple’s iMessage definitely poses a threat to carrier SMS services but that threat is being overblown. iMessage does a lot of things SMS and MMS can’t—send location and contact data, group messaging, read receipts, presence and integrate itself deeper into the user interface and experience —but the fact remains that iMessage only works between iOS devices. It’s a closed system just like the iCloud services Apple announced at WWDC (CP: With iCloud, Apple changes the definition of ‘Cloud’), and closed proprietary systems come with huge, inherent limitations.
Sure, Apple has its cults of fanatics, and some will insist on solely using iMessage for their two-way text communications needs—non-iPhone users be damned. But the rest of us, I would presume, would like to remain in touch with our friends, colleagues and loved ones despite their questionable tastes in handsets. In case, you have a short memory, operators did pretty much the same thing when text messaging first emerged. SMS exploded in Europe and Asia but floundered in the U.S. because carriers didn’t support inter-operator messaging.
Between those who do own iPhones, iPods Touch and iPads—and are aware which of their contacts also own such devices--I’m sure there will be considerable reduction in SMS and MMS traffic. But every iPhone user except for the most diehard Apple fanboy will still have a carrier messaging plan. Be honest, when was the last time you paid for an individual text message? Most carriers in the U.S. are bundling SMS and data into smartphone plans. In some cases it’s hard to buy to buy an SMS plan that doesn’t come with unlimited use. Except in prepaid, we’ve moved far from paying for the individual message, and I don’t see many prepaid iPhones out there. As long as iMessage remains closed, operators are still going to sell every iPhone user an SMS plan.
I’ve heard a lot of comparisons between iMessage and BlackBerry Messenger and the potential impact Apple’s service can have in the enterprise. First of all, BBM--no matter how useful a service--hasn’t killed off SMS or even made much of a dent. Second, I would argue that Apple’s rapid expansion into the enterprise isn’t going to drive up enterprise iMessage usage as much as it will drive down BBM usage. The appeal of BBM lies in the fact that most enterprises today are all BlackBerry shops. You can be reasonably certain that your boss and all of your colleagues have BlackBerrys so BBM becomes a useful and cost-effective enterprise tool. But the minute iPhones or even Android devices get introduced into an enterprise en masse, that usefulness disappears. You wind up with two proprietary platforms unable to communicate with another. Sure, if enterprises become all-iPhone shops you can replicate BBM’s success, but where is that going happen, save at Apple Corporation itself?
The real threat to SMS doesn’t lie with Apple. The threat lies with Apple frenemy numero uno: Google. A tidbit in a Wall Street Journal story on the messaging wars (at story that is thankfully more restrained than most) points to Google working on a similar platform to iMessage. Unlike Apple, Google doesn’t just offer services over its own mobile OS. It puts them into as many devices as it can, including other smartphone platforms like iOS and even feature phones. If Google can take the functionality of iMessage and extend it to all smartphones, it would strike a huge blow against SMS, not mention iMessage. If it can extend all or some of that functionality down to feature and talk and text phones, then Google could kill SMS as we know it. Of course, diving that deep into phone tiers will require the cooperation of the operators and probably deep integration with proprietary phone user interfaces and carriers’ own SMSCs. In such a scenario, Google wouldn’t really replace SMS as much as it would become an integrated part of operators’ SMS services on lower-end phones.
The rapid growth of SMS has slowed considerably in the last few years, but you can’t point to a single service like BBM or iMessage as the responsible party. The culprit is the smartphone, which overnight placed a plethora of two-way communications options on consumers’ phones beyond voice and SMS. Facebook, instant messaging, Twitter, Webmail and even corporate e-mail are basically free services over all smartphones and many feature phones. You could argue that what carriers stand to lose in SMS revenues, they’re already making up in data plan revenues.
Still, SMS is a huge cash cow for operators. It’s essentially the most network efficient data service that ever existed—the revenues they collect from delivering the equivalent of a megabyte of SMS messages dwarfs what they could collect on a megabyte of IP data. I’m assuming they don’t want to see that cash river run dry. The industry has itself to blame, though. After the wireless industry solved the issue of MMS interoperability (and it’s still questionable whether it’s truly been solved), it threw up its hands and went on to the next service. The industry became complacent.
There’s really been no innovation on the SMS and MMS front. If wireless vendors had implemented just a few of the innovative features Apple developed for iMessage, Apple probably wouldn’t have even bothered. The only reason a closed system like iMessage can compete against is because SMS as we know it has become so tired. If you can’t provide a decent standardized alternative, then some people will start gravitating toward the proprietary, despite its limitations. The same is already starting to happen with video chat (Apple’s FaceTime) and voicemail (Google Voice).
Now if someone—i.e. Google--was able to develop an advanced messaging system that was both compelling and widely accessible, then we could start seeing large-scale market fractures. If you ask me, Apple can’t kill SMS. The best thing it could do is prevent Google from killing SMS and iMessage by blocking any Google messaging service from iOS. But that’s another story.
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