SMS is still the best

One of the dangers of working in mobile is that it's easy to get caught up in the hype. Throw in 3G, GPS, mobile video, mobile music, 2bn+ mobile subscribers worldwide, etc….and you can quickly see how a lot of smart people and well-run companies get mesmerized by the possibilities.

The danger, of course, is that these visions of the "mobile society" get too far ahead of the way normal, everyday people use their mobile phones. I'm a huge believer in the long-term potential for mobile (otherwise I wouldn't be working in mobile!), but I also think too many ignore some basic facts: voice still drives mobile phone usage / carrier selection and the only "universal" data service is SMS.

Take this recent study published in Newsday (via MobHappy) about US college students' mobile phone usage. A demographic that everybody expects to be among the heaviest users of mobile data – college students – emphasizes voice features as being most important and overwhelmingly uses SMS.

  • 85% of students sent or received a text message in the past month. Avg. number of messages exchanged per month was 115.
  • 60% of students are enrolled in a family plan
  • Three most important factors for selecting mobile carriers are all voice-related: cost of minutes (53%), free long distance (27%), and free mobile-to-mobile (25%).

A recent post by Danah Boyd on mobile social communities also points out the problems of building mobile communities that aren't universally accessible / used within social clusters (i.e., communities built around GPS, mobile clients that only work on specific handsets or only with specific carriers, etc.). As the 85% adoption of SMS by US college students shows, SMS is the only mobile data service that's used and accessible by almost everybody. Not GPS. Not some slick downloadable app. Not mobile video. Plain, old, simple, boring…SMS.

SMS is cheap, it's super easy to use, and it works with practically everybody else's mobile phone (hmm…could that be a reason SMS is so popular?). Even though the influential / early adopter youth crowd mostly have "shit plans" (as Danah Boyd calls them) because they can't afford expensive data plans, most of them can't go without one data service: SMS. Sounds like a winner to me.

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