Cashing in on the SMS phenomenon

Network firms want to make text messaging pay, writes Nick Langley.

Network firms want to make text messaging pay, writes Nick Langley

What is it?

The boom in text messaging using Short Message Service (SMS) surprised no one more than the mobile phone companies. Although SMS messages are cheaper than voice calls, text messaging is used as well as, not instead of, voice. Network operators are trying to raise additional revenue through advertising, data services and games, providing work for in-house developers and third-party application and content providers.

Where did it originate?

SMS was part of the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard from the outset. The first SMS messages were sent in 1991, but for years SMS languished, except for some lacklustre attempts to push SMS-based data services at business people.

SMS took off with the arrival of pre-pay mobile phones. SMS was not supposed to be part of the pre-pay package, and billing systems were not set up to deal with it, so for a while texting was free. Usage dropped sharply when charging was introduced, then climbed rapidly once again.

What is it for?

It is a youth-led phenomenon, not least because it enables people to communicate in venues with high levels of background noise, and because adults find it hard to use and understand. It should be an advertiser's dream: SMS users have more money than responsibilities and can be targeted directly via the networks. But apart from a few local pilots, SMS advertising has not happened yet.

What makes it special?

SMS went through 1,000% growth in the year Wap hype hit its height. It is a kind of anti-Wap: limited to 160 characters, each character requiring multiple presses on a keypad so small a marmoset would find it fiddly. But overcoming these limitations requires a creativity and playfulness that advertisers and games providers are hoping to engage with.

Where is it used?

Wherever you can get a signal. 

How difficult is it?

SMS is a simple store-and-forward technology: the message goes from the sender's handset to the network's SMS centre, which forwards it to the recipient. In theory, SMS messages can be concatenated - multiple messages combined - but users and developers alike have chosen to keep things simple.

GSM standards mandate the bare minimum to ensure SMS messages can be sent and received irrespective of service provider or network. The rest is up to application developers and toolkit providers. But games providers and advertisers cannot use flashy graphics to attract customers, so they must tell a compelling story in a few words. The most successful entertainment applications have been dating games and betting services.

Not to be confused with ...

The Sega Master System, a games console introduced in 1986, which had features text games users in 2003 can only dream of.

What does it run on?

Texting has taken off fastest in Europe and Asia, where virtually all mobile phones can use it. Compatibility problems between networks have held it back in North and South America. 

Few people know that ...

SMS is hacker-proof. As far as anyone knows, nobody has succeeded in breaking into a text message. 

What is coming up?

Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS). The mobile network operators are hoping that photo messaging will have the same runaway success as texting.


Rates of pay   

You will probably need other wireless skills such as Sun's Java 2 Micro Edition, Wap or Symbian. Rates for developers vary hugely, from £25,000 to more than twice as much.


SMS training is available from mobile network operators and handset providers (try Developer_Network). There are also plenty of free internet tutorials, such as those at

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