SMS may be losing appeal after 20 years

Text messaging, which quickly gained global popularity, faces crackdowns, competition

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 4:30am

Amid the 20th anniversary of the short messaging service (SMS) this month, analysts say the world's most popular mobile service is facing stiff competition from emerging applications for internet-enabled smartphones.

That is also true in China, where mainland officials' crackdowns and competition from internet-based social-media networks have seen SMS lose much of its allure.

Since the first SMS text message, "Merry Christmas", was sent in Britain on December 3, 1992, the format - with a maximum of 160 characters - has quickly become one of the most popular forms of communication.

Worldwide, there are about 3.6 billion active users - 78 per cent of all mobile-phone subscribers - who send out about 10 trillion text messages a year.

In China, China Mobile statistics show that mainland users sent out 736.1 billion text messages last year, up from 502.74 billion four years ago.

However, the Shenghuo Xinbao newspaper reported late last month that China Mobile's SMS revenue had declined by 11.7 per cent year on year to 46.46 billion yuan (HK$57.23 billion) last year.

Li Jia, a senior analyst at Beijing-based information-technology consultancy CCID Consulting, said SMS took off dramatically on the mainland 10 years ago because of aggressive marketing by mobile service providers and became a major growth engine for them in 2005.

"Another reason behind its rapid growth is that it was the most convenient value-added mobile service available at the time when the telecommunications networks were still slow," she said.

Statistics from the Ministry of Information Industry show that the SMS text message overtook the phone call to become the most popular way of sending Lunar New Year greetings in 2005, with more than 10 billion text messages sent over during the seven-day holiday that year.

Qiao Mu, an associate communications professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said SMS was popular because it was much cheaper than making a phone call.

But he said that what set China apart from many other countries was that SMS had become a prominent tool for social and political activism, playing a key role in some of landmark mass movements in recent years.

SMS had helped spread news of the severe acute respiratory syndrome pandemic on the mainland in 2003 when state-controlled media were silent.

"Communication via SMS began to break the traditional media outlets' control over issues in public discussions and to allow the public to set up its own agenda," Qiao said.

SMS discussions of the outbreak eventually forced the authorities to acknowledge a cover-up. More than 900 people died of Sars on the mainland.

The power of SMS was also displayed in November 2005 when a picture message showing a naked Chinese woman doing squats while being watched by a Malaysian policewoman was widely circulated among mainland mobile-phone users, triggering a huge outcry over Chinese women being unfairly rounded up by Malaysian police in a crackdown on prostitution and calls for Chinese tourists to boycott that country.

"Such mass mobilisations have demonstrated the powerful role of SMS and have rattled the authorities because of their social implications," said Qiao, adding that the authorities had stepped up efforts to control the service, introducing real-name registration requirements for mobile phone users.

Li said SMS growth would continue to taper off because of challenges from real-time telecommunication technologies such as Weixin.

"But it could continue to exist as a basic mobile service," she said.