Simple desires, complex answers

I remain to be convinced that text messaging has any great use beyond filling in time on public transport and during interminable meetings. But plenty of developers seem keen to prove me wrong.

I remain to be convinced that text messaging has any great use beyond filling in time on public transport and during interminable meetings. But plenty of developers seem keen to prove me wrong.

As a relative and somewhat reluctant newcomer to the sport, it seems to me that texting is a simple solution to a simple problem: right now, I want to tell you something brief but kind of important, am willing to pay about 20c for the privilege, and I’m nowhere near a PC or handheld to fire off an email.

But Forrester Research says SMS (short message service, the official name for text messages) is much, much more. It continues to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise depressed mobile telecomms industry, with among young adults in particular fingering handsets in droves. But even more promising is the use of SMS for new applications like opinion poll voting and competition entry, the analyst firm says.

This is to add to the chat, games and information that can already be sent to your phone. Vodafone is this month launching its multimedia text messaging service, PXT, at a cost of 50 cents a message. PXT will let you send images to email addresses, and eventually to other mobile phones.

But these are just the latest efforts. At the end of 2000 Trade Me bidders could receive cellphone messages advising them they'd been outbid. In November of last year Vodafone touted SEXTXT, which, in conjunction with women's magazine B, offered a different sex tip on their mobile phone every day. A month later they could get cricket highlights throughout the day with the help of cricinfo.co.nz. In February, Exo-net founder Mark Loveys was courting developers to create web applications that could be run over mobile phones through Datasquirt – which has custom-built SMS applications for Quotable Value Online and the Auckland Regional Council -- or use its Textcode to buy products using their phone.

Whether PXT or any other service turns out to be the killer app for mobile data (kinky photos, anyone?) depends on the number of victims … sorry, customers. IDC says the country will have 1.6m cellphones this year. The wireless web will have over 100,000 users next year and perhaps 450,000 by 2006. Voice currently consumes 86% of the market, but by 2005 data will reach 30% of revenue mix and add $1.6b of new revenue. You can see why developers are interested.

In the week after Tony Darby’s team at ARC took out a Computerworld Excellence Award for its Virtually thr public transport information scheme, I heard of two other business schemes that plan to take advantage of text messaging.

One IT manager mentioned a plan to text information and encouragement to back up medical intervention in a public health issue. Since it was communicated in confidence I won’t say more, but anything along such lines deserves success.

Yet another service I heard of last week was text messages sent to job seekers. The Hibiscus Coast-based Starf will advise seekers and the sought – for a price -- by mobile of job details, interview times and personal data -- through Starf.net and the interestingly-named Rogerjob.com.

It should be noted that in some senses Virtually thr is a failure. Just 6% of visitors are using the short message service (SMS) channel through the website (WAP is 4%), though this means people are trying it, Darby told a group of IT executives last month. And the intention was to cut down on calls to the contact centre, which hasn’t happened. Awareness of the new services means call volumes are up 27% to 1.4 million a year.

Of course, what we really, really want is seamless integration of SMS, instant messaging, wireless email services such as BlackBerry (Australia is the latest country to implement the service, which offers wireless email, phone calls/ always-on email/web surfing, organiser and integration with corporate systems and security) and whatever else the telcos or developers come up with. Sales people want wireless access to sales applications. Project managers want access to back-end apps. Couriers and truck drivers want access to online tracking services.

Wireless support, as has been noted before, creates a Hydra of problems for network administrators, who have to somehow combine myriad applications, networks, devices and standards into a secure, reliable, authenticated service. You wouldn’t want customer data diverting to your competitor. Web services may ultimately help, but in the mean time business users are already pushing to use these simple, real-time tools for business needs.

They are, for instance, discovering that instant messaging may – with security and authentication -- enable confirmation of financial transactions, or let managers hold virtual conferences and collaborate on projects. Note, though, that each of the major instant messaging platforms uses a proprietary protocol (surprise!) – even as the Internet Engineering Task Force is developing the Instant Messaging Presence Protocol. Good luck.

Perhaps my lack of interest in texting comes about because my phone doesn’t have predictive texting. Or perhaps my thumbs are too fat. Americans, being the most obese country in the world (though we are lumbering up in pursuit at a surprising gallop) perhaps suffer a similar fate. The Economist says they don’t like texting as much as Asians and Europeans. That publication also says help might be on the way with a faster, low-memory, rules-based predictive-dialling system called LetterWise that will outdo the incumbent t9 system now owned by America Online. Thirty-eight words a minute? Brilliant, now I just have to think of something to say.

Broatch is Computerworld's deputy editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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More about America OnlineARCBlackBerryExo-netForrester ResearchIDC AustraliaInternet Engineering Task ForceTrade MeVodafone

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