|Asia-Pacific I 2012
|The Unification of 160 to 140
|Chief Technical Officer
Kim Hartlev is the CTO of Synchronica plc. He has a strong track record in the mobile device management industry, following six years’ experience at Mobilethink in Denmark, a specialist in over-the-air (OTA) mobile device configuration solutions. Kim provides the technical vision for the Company, ensuring Synchronica’s products remain competitive and innovative. He is responsible for leading the development team and managing all quality assurance and testing of Synchronica’s award-winning products. He is also responsible for overseeing customization work undertaken for key mobile operator and device manufacturer customers.
Kim Hartlev holds a BSc in Engineering from the Aarhus Engineering College, Denmark.
The surprising success of the 160 characters long SMS was only matched by the surprising success of Twitter with its 140 characters. This article charts the progress of messaging, from the humble one-to-one text transfer to the social networking tools of today. IM was slow to arrive on mobile phones, but now it spreads virally and inhibits churn. Social networks coupled with mobility are proven immensely powerful. Indeed, they can galvanise the population into rising against dictators, as witnessed in the Arab Spring. The next phase will see consolidation of all of these messaging communities – SMS, email, IM and social networking, in a seamless, convenient and ubiquitous service.
Some time ago an interview featuring Kelly Osbourne made me smile. Not because it was especially amusing or endearing, but because Kelly had unwittingly illustrated how the process of sharing messages has evolved over such a short time. The Black Sabbath lead singer’s daughter articulated it in this way: “I was dating this guy and we would spend all day text messaging each other. He thought that he could tell that he liked me more because he actually spelt the word ‘YOU’ and I just put the letter ‘u’”.
Today human interaction, mobile phones, and modern messaging are all intrinsically linked. While it’s up for debate whether the relationship between the three comes down to convenience or affordability, what is certain is that barriers, distance and even language are being irreversibly challenged.
That’s not all…
In recent history, mobile phones coupled with messaging communities have covered breaking news faster and more accurately than the traditional 24-hour television services. They have brought down governments, despots and dictatorships, while at the same time crashing down barriers between celebrities and their fans.
Mobile telephony is the enabler of this, and many in the mobile space are starting to cash in.
Across its history, mobile telephony has been defined by speed. In the 1980’s it was something new, an exciting yet unrefined technology with masses of potential. It fitted perfectly the yuppie stereotype of decadence for which the decade had become notorious. Fast forward to the 1990’s and mobile phones had replaced pagers and two-way radios to become the ‘must-have’ business tool. Sales reps were often the envy of many as they spoke into their Motorola 5200’s. By the time we celebrated the new millennium, there was more to talk about than just the Y2K misadventure. ‘Txt spk’ had become a new lingo, spurred on by teenagers taking advantage of new prepaid services and consumer-focused devices. Today, thirty years since making their debut, seven billion mobile phones are currently being used and they have become the most accessible way to connect to countless messaging communities.
The unification of 160 to 140 begins with a text
As an accidental success taking many by surprise, mobile messaging started its life as a service limited to the amount of text in this sentence: 160 characters.
SMS grew quickly, supported by subscribers who relished the ability to send, on impulse, a message from their phone. In 2007, within one month of the implementation of legislation which banned smoking in clubs, bars, and restaurants, British mobile operator Orange recorded an increase of 7.5 million SMS messages. Dubbing the phenomenon as ‘smexting’, Orange attributed it to smokers, who as a substitute for the social contact being missed while being forced to smoke outside, chose to SMS their acquaintances instead. Others, who used the ban as a drive to quit smoking altogether, admitted to sending mobile messages as a means of distracting themselves from nicotine cravings.
Mobile messaging is of course no longer limited to SMS. A study commissioned by eMarketer provided the first evidence of the addictiveness of email as a channel of communication. Just as consumers continue to use their mobile phones while vacationing, they continue to email too. According to the study’s data, while vacationing, 65 per cent of holidaymakers – across all demographics – regularly check their personal email accounts, and 78 per cent use their mobile phone to do so.
IM’s protracted journey
Probably due to pressures from mobile carriers concerned that IM would cannibalise their SMS revenues, mobile device manufacturers were slow to develop IM clients for early products. Capgemini, for instance, revealed in an early study that 19 per cent of the mobile subscribers who said they would be interested in subscribing to mobile IM at the time owned a handset which could not support the service. This has since changed. Today most major device manufacturers embed industry standard IM clients onto their products, and specialist mobile messaging developers build IM gateways into their messaging platforms.
BlackBerry, best known for business-focused services, made its entrance into IM with its proprietary BlackBerry Messaging (BBM) service. BBM came onto the market quietly, but has since achieved impressive uptake – especially amongst younger mobile users. Almost by chance, BBM managed to capture a significant user base with many in the market underestimating the power that messaging plays in one’s device choice. According to Ofcom, Britain’s regulator, some 37 per cent of teenagers own a BlackBerry handset. Recognising the potential, BlackBerry is now looking to drive further uptake for BBM with marketing and advertising campaigns.
The success of BBM has prompted mobile operators to develop their own services. América Móvil’s IM service, Claro Messenger, which is based on Synchronica technology, is available throughout all of its operations. The company views Claro Messenger as a churn inhibitor, because customers spread their identities virally and become dependent on the service to stay in touch with their IM contacts. Defecting to a rival carrier would mean they wouldn’t be able to use Claro Messenger, resulting in the loss of their IM identity.
Industry analysts agree that within three years, 600 million people worldwide will rely on their mobile phones to access an IM community, generating revenues for operators that will exceed US$ 2.2 billion. IM has developed its own lingo, and while the world nudges and buzzes from their mobile phones, phrases like BRB (be right back) will @TEOTD (at the end of the day) become even more commonplace.
Web 2.0 – gate-crashing the party?
Twitter, a popular micro-blogging service, asks a simple question. “What’s happening?” It receives some 200 million answers each day from a legion of 360 million ‘tweeterers’ including celebrity names, such as Britney Spears, Yoko Ono, and Barack Obama.
According to the GSM Association (an industry-body devoted to promoting GSM technology), social networking users spend a greater amount of time accessing accounts from mobile phones than they do from computers. Ironically Twitter is about succinct messages, limiting users to the amount of text in this sentence: 140 characters (less than SMS allows). Have we taken a nostalgic step backwards?
Facebook, another popular social networking service, is embraced by mobile users too. The service confirms that more than 350 million ‘Facebookers’ access their accounts from phones and are twice as active as non-mobile users.
Social networks focus on building online communities of people who share common interests or relationships. Using these services, people share news, personal experiences, and provide updates on their mood. Beyond virtual socialisation, these services also played a key role in the recent Middle East uprisings. A call for an Egyptian “Day of Rage” originated from a Facebook page, while protesters in Bahrain relied on Twitter and their mobile phones to contradict government statements, circulate updates of each demonstration and issue calls for the next one. By coupling mobile phones with social networks, it became simple to rally people very quickly and broadcast frontline news to the world stage.
It’s not just the establishment that should feel threatened by the increasing power of social networking. Mobile operators are under attack too. Towards the end of 2010 Facebook announced aspirations to become a messaging hub for all social networking, IM, SMS and email communications. With this small glimpse into the strategic direction of the world’s favourite social networking service, operators ought to feel anxious. Should Facebook’s aspirations come to a head, then voice and messaging revenues will be negatively impacted, while operators will see heavy dilution to their value propositions.
Unification holds the key
The solution for operators is to diversify their revenue streams beyond what had typically been considered the foremost killer applications – voice and SMS. Operators across all markets, developed, as well as emerging, are packaging value-added services that are bundled to specific subscriber segments, but using a messaging-community neutral approach. In essence, they are kicking against the growing threat presented to them by social networking services. By offering relevant services that appeal to the needs, interests, and preferences of their customers, operators have unlocked new revenue streams by providing access to the messaging services that their customers demand.
The next step in this journey is unification: consolidating all of these messaging communities – SMS, email, IM and social networking – into a common operator-branded mailbox. With unified messaging, the messaging experience becomes greatly enhanced. It becomes easy to manage all of the messaging services using a single client, providing users with even greater interaction between their favourite messaging services. Incoming Facebook messages could be replied to as an SMS, email messages forwarded as Tweets, IM conversations forwarded as SMS. Contact lists can be shared between messaging services, status updates spread across all of the accounts, multimedia captured by the phone uploaded to multiple services at the same time.
Today, device technology already exists to achieve this. With operators and developers working relentlessly on the future of mobile messaging solutions, our journey from 160 to 140 is about to become even more relevant with a new, unified messaging experience, at the very heart of our mobile environment.