October 12, 2011: The Day SMS Began To Die

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I’m not generally one to predict the death of things. I’ve rarely been known to herald a shiny new Device X as a “Device Y Killer!”, and I’m a firm believer that Facebook is doing a perfectly good job of being “the new Facebook”. Pundits love to make these crazy claims because they’re easily forgotten and rarely does anyone call them out for being wrong after a few years have passed.

With that said: October 12th, 2011. Mark it down, and come back and yell at me in a few years if I’m wrong. Today is the day SMS begins to die.

It begins with today’s launch of iOS 5.

Or, really, it begins with iMessage.

Back in June, MG wrote that Apple had “finally stuck a dagger into SMS” with the announcement of iMessage. Today, they’re pulling that dagger out… and sitting back and laughing as the wound bleeds out.

You! Heading for the comments! Wait a second. (A crazy request, really, given that it’s 5 line breaks deep into this post. I probably should’ve put it right in the headline.)

To be clear, iMessage alone won’t kill SMS. It’ll just start the avalanche.

Today, many millions of people (and millions more, come Friday) are being shown something better. Besides updating to iOS 5, they don’t have to do anything to make it work. They don’t have to manually install an app; hell, they don’t even need to use anything they’re not already using.

This isn’t BlackBerry Messenger. There are no PINs to share. iMessage just knows when the person you’re texting can receive iMessages, and handles everything for you.

This isn’t Google Voice, with its free texting. There is no new app to install and use, or new service to sign up for.

This is many, many, many millions of devices, suddenly switching to a new protocol with little interaction from the user. This is millions of iPhones, suddenly sending a fraction of the SMS messages they sent before. The carriers are terrified, and rightly so.

Yes, iMessage only works from iOS device to iOS device — but that doesn’t matter. This is just the beginning of the end.

Next, iMessage support will come to iChat in OS X. Users will be chatting across platforms — again, with no new apps to install, and no new services to sign up for.

Next, Google will respond with their own, completely integrated Android-to-Android alternative. They already have such a thing to some extent with Google Talk — it’s just lacking things like photo messaging, read/delivery receipts, and the most important part: the seamless, almost entirely automatic integration. Don’t expect it to stay that way.

At a certain point, probably 2-3 years down the road, these proprietary services will be in no way unique. Any surviving platforms will likely have their own SMS alternative, and the concept will reach a point of entropy where they’re no longer directly beneficial to device sales. In fact, that they are not cross-compatible will be seen as a detriment to the concept as a whole — and at that point, the major players will begin working together on a cross-platform (but still carrier independent and agnostic) standard.

Users will grow accustomed to these service’s fancier tricks — the aforementioned read/delivery receipts, the typing status indicators, and the whole, you know, being free part. Users will see texting people via the old SMS system as antiquated; being SMS-only will be like being in a different area code in the mid 90’s. You’ll still get texts — your friends just won’t be happy about it.

SMS won’t go away completely, just as e-mail hasn’t entirely killed snail mail — it’ll just be a sad shell of its former self. It’ll hold strong for a few years longer in certain countries outside of the US, until a standard is set and the new protocol is embraced in feature phones. Companies will still harass you via SMS. You’ll still be able to vote for your favorite American Idol via SMS. But SMS, as we’ve known and loathed for far too long, as a ubiquitous and integrated part of our world’s communication, as an unjustifiable cash cow for the carriers, is dying. Good riddance.