SMS – the “Sleeping Beauty” of GSM standardisation

Hot off the press (May 2010) is a book edited by Fred Hillebrand that is a celebration of the 25th anniversary of SMS standardisation. And what a well deserved celebration – with an estimated 4.5 trillion short messages sent (and received) in 2008 across the globe. The book itself will appeal to anyone and everyone involved in GSM standardisation.

The book captures the atmosphere of GSM in the 1980’s well down in the engine room, cut off from politics, industrial haggling, IPR wrangles, market pressures and modern standardisation body rule books. It is a world where engineers had the space, time and freedom to do a good job in optimising messaging over the new GSM digital platform and blending ideas from different people coming from different mobile operators.

The book is meticulous in its detail and is genuine research in an industrial archaeology sense.  The SMS story is free from the high politics that beset the main GSM initiative. In fact the profile of the SMS standardisation activity was so low relative to the ultimate huge success that Fred is absolutely right in describing SMS in his book as the “Sleeping Beauty” of GSM standardisation.

Where Fred steps into interesting territory for the more general reader is his views on why SMS was such an outstanding success. He certainly nails the various myths that have grown up in the media – including the one that SMS was invented by Finnish school boys who were too shy to ask girls directly out for a date.  For me the secret of SMS’ success is laid bare on page 132 in which Fred points out that one of the success factors was to make SMS mandatory in every handset…building on Fred’s own role in GSM in putting SMS on the list of  GSM services. For me this is “the” success factor, since had those alleged Finnish school boys not known if the mobile phone of the girl of their dreams had SMS or not or even a compatible version – the bandwagon of social use of SMS would have stalled at birth and SMS would never have become the biggest massaging community in the world today.

What the book leaves for other researchers to pick up are the social reasons why this particular generation of young people found twitching mobile phone keys and looking at a tiny screen so compelling. In fact this same phenomena also blindsided the consumer electronics industry who were shocked beyond belief at the success of Gameboy – that also involved young nimble fingers twitching on tiny keys and looking at tiny screens.

The book offers a good foundation for those that can looks at past successes and say…now how much of this is relevant to the new challenges facing the mobile radio industry today? This is where I come back to the decision to make SMS mandatory in every handset. I would love to know more about how that decision was taken and why. In particular whether this was widely debate or happened on the initiaitive of Fred himself and just  slipped under the radar. I certainly do not recall it be debated during my time in GSM Plenary sessions.

The reason for this current interest is that, in my view, the mobile operators, at the highest levels, have been walking away from their core business success and culture  in search of competitive growth opportunities. Highly paid consultants have whispered in their ears that their biggest risk is becoming “a bit pipe” and focussed their energy in trying to muscle into the IT and content space. In doing so they have lost the will to work with other mobile operators in creating the future …on the mobile radio industry terms. The result is that the biggest risk today for the mobile radio industry is to find itself falling between two stools – where they fail to out-muscle the giants like Google and Apple in the new Internet space but in the process neglect to develop the future of their current strengths and assets. And one of those biggest strengths and assets is their collective control over the biggest messaging community in the world…SMS. I strongly believe there are opportunities to leverage that core strength in messaging…whether for machine to machine opportunities (as Fred suggests and the GSMA are promoting) or other more sophisticated messaging that is backwards compatible with SMS. There are worse fates in the market than being a successful and profitable “bit pipe” of all the world’s messaging across whatever platform.

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