Does SMS need a home?

The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) has just published some documents defining a Short Message Service (SMS) for normal fixed phone lines. This service would allow messages to be sent and received by compatible telephones or other line attachments. The service builds on the solid base used in the GSM mobile networks, uses many of the same protocols and has common system hardware.

The way it works is that the user sends a message in much the same way as on a mobile, the SMS unit then dials up the Short Message Service Centre (SMSC) and the message is sent. Incoming messages are received using a normal phone call; the SMS unit recognises the CLI and answers the call before the bell rings. There may be other methods of conveying the messages depending on whether the line is ISDN or has other facilities. Messages can be exchanged with mobiles or with any other phone line that is set up for messaging.

Well, thatís the technical stuff out of the way but the important question is whether people will want to pay the money to use the service. I canít foretell the future with any degree of accuracy but it is interesting to think about it a little. Mobile SMS is a spectacular success with about a billion messages a month being sent in the UK alone. The main technical reason for the success is that the sender knows that the recipient will be able to receive the message. This is because SMS has been a mandatory feature of GSM mobiles for many years.

In the case of fixed-line SMS the sender will have to know in advance whether the particular line is set up to receive SMS. It will be many years before every fixed-line phone has SMS capabilities and given the very slow turnover in fixed phones we may never reach a high penetration. This may not be too much of a problem although it will reduce the potential traffic. Itís like buying a fax machine; no one sends you a fax until they know that you own a machine.

The non-technical reasons for the success of mobile SMS are concerned with human psychology and are, for me at any rate, much more difficult to understand and predict. It seems that one of the key success factors of SMS is that it is a very personal service; no one can see your messages. Fixed phones are usually shared between several people so the privacy is non-existent.

It is very easy today to send SMS from a PC using either a web interface or software that contacts the SMSC directly. The new service is unlikely to be any easier to use than this so it must offer something extra. The new feature offered, of course, is reception of messages. The important question is whether people will want to receive messages on their fixed phones. It might find some use as an analogue of an answering machine; when thereís no reply, send an SMS if you have a mobile handy. I imagine that deaf people would use the service as a useful adjunct to a textphone.

In the light of all this I donít see the service taking off in a big way, however I think Iíd buy an add-on box and pay a small rental for the service just for the gizmo factor.


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