The SMS at 20: still going strong in Africa

In Africa’s fast-paced innovative world, few things have proved as defiant to change as the SMS text message, with the 20-year-old technology connecting more people than Facebook or Twitter.

Today, some 6 billion mobile phone users send over 7 trillion text messages each year, representing close to 200,000 per second.

Origin of SMS

The origin of SMS takes us back to a Danish pizzeria in 1984, when a Finnish engineer Matti Makkonen, in Copenhagen for a mobile telecom conference, started a discussion with two colleagues on the idea of a messaging system on the GSM digital cellular system.

One of the developers of the SMS service centre software for Vodafone, Neil Papworth, on December 3, 1992 made the 30-minute journey from Sema’s offices in Reading to Vodafone’s headquarters in Newbury seeking approval for the SMS service.

The approval was issued and the systems interconnected. Afterwards, Papworth, sitting in front of a personal computer, typed out the greeting “Merry Christmas” and sent it via SMS to Vodafone Director Richard Jarvis, who received the message on an Orbitel 901 “transportable” cellphone.

Eight years afterwards, SMS had been transformed to a standard. It was originallyused to inform subscribers of waiting voicemails at no cost. The growth of its market is attributed to the introduction of prepaid cellular service and innovations such as T9 predictive text input. In 2000, the industry counted 17 billion text messages, according to Ericsson. This number grew by 20 times over the following two years.

The gradual decline

Twenty years later, there are signs that SMS’s best days may be well behind it. The average text messages sent across the world have been in decline. In the United States, for example, for the first time “SMSing” has declined from 696 messages per month to 678 messages, a possible first indicator of the shift from the 160-character SMS.

Some experts have blamed the descent on factors including Web-based interconnections such as Facebook and Twitter, which offer an alternative to SMS through one-on-one messaging and public or semi-private posts to unlimited number of users. The extensive use of emails is another factor as it is now accessible via smartphones, with some having push email capabilities that deliver emails in real-time to users.

Apple’s iMessage has also been cited as a possible cause of SMS’s demise given its technique of automatically replacing SMS between two iPhone users, in fact iPhone users have been reported to now send fewer tradition text messages.

In addition, wireless carriers have been less vocal in encouraging users to stick to SMS text messaging. Recently, Rick Falvinge or Falvinge.net pointed out that telcos charge more for a text message than the price of sending data from Mars, a testimony that the incentive to use alternatives is undeniable.

Technologies rarely die

Nevertheless, technologies rarely die, despite punditry proclamations. They instead become less relevant with time.

The founder of FrontlineSMS, Ken Banks, once said: “The default position for many people working in ICT4D [information and communications technologies for development] is to build centralized solutions to local problems – things that ‘integrate’ and ’scale’. With little local ownership and engagement, many of these top-down approaches fail to appreciate the culture of technology and its users. My belief is that users want to have their own system, something which works with them to solve their problem.”

The SMS, unlike email or Facebook messaging, is always on, and users will never have to worry about being signed in or out. It is also secure, as it is directly linked to a user’s phone number, thus providing a level of identification and transaction security, making monetising transactions a whole lot easier.

The biggest reason to continue investing in SMS-based apps is the extensive network effects that SMS enjoys. SMS is widely used, hence making the users extensively reachable via SMS. In order for an IP-based service to be meaningful, it has to reach a critical mass of users.

Why SMS still thrives in Africa

In Africa, the potential for SMS-based apps go far beyond games, entertainment and publishing. With a total population of just over one billion, infrastructure is lacking throughout the continent, especially in the areas of health, agriculture, banking and education. Mobile apps are extensively touted as one of the solutions.

According to the African e-Development Resource Centre, from mobile banking, SMS chatting to stock market updates, all via SMS technology, the catalogue of mobile apps in Africa seems to increase by the day, attributed to the mobile phone penetration that outstrips PC penetration, availability of affordable bandwidth and the demand to do more than voice and text on the mobile phone.

In Africa, SMS is widely used in many interventional initiatives. During the post-election violence, a Kenyan blogger asked if there were “any techies out there willing to do a survey of locations of violence using Google Maps”. Within days, Kenya’s digital community responded with Ushahidi, a website that collected reports of violence via SMS or online. Over 200 incidents were reported and later verified through NGOs which were later posted on an interactive calendar and map.

Mobile phone-based crowdsourcing also went beyond Ushahidi. Several of Kenya’s bloggers allowed readers to comment on their posts via SMS, and the BBC received nearly 4,000 text messages from Kenyans after asking for updates on the situation. Local media also used mobile technology to conduct surveys on campaign issues, broadcasting poll questions on television and radio and encouraging listeners to respond via SMS.

Similarly, text-messaging software FrontlineSMS collects and broadcasts information. Stop Stock-outs, another African group, has used Ushahidi to map where essential medicines are sold out. By checking whether a drug is genuine, users of mPedigree and another Ghanaian service called Sproxil provide real-time data about which illnesses are on the rise. In Mali a company called Pesinet gets agents to send in the weight of newborn
babies via SMS.

Then there is txteagle, which hopes to reward those willing to perform small jobs on a mobile phone. Its founder, Nathan Eagle, discovered that nurses in Kenya were much likelier to text in the stock levels at their blood banks if they were compensated with a bit of airtime.

Others include a multimedia campaign dubbed ‘Wazazi Nipendeni’ – Swahili for ‘Parents Love Me’ – in Tanzania that encourages expectant women and their spouses to participate in programs targeted at ensuring healthy pregnancy and safe delivery. Rasello, an SMS broadcast service, is also used in Tanzania by businesses to muster solid customer-base by enabling them to send customised messages in their promotional strategies.

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