Getting texting / SMS

After 5 months of living here in Europe I am finally understanding why SMS is mobile telephony in Europe. Estimates I have heard range from 50% to 80% of time spent on the phone is spent sending text or SMS vs. talking on the phone — very different to the us where approx 30% of mobile users use SMS. For Europeans this stuff is obvious, texting is mobile telephony. The reasons I have heard why SMS is so popular in Europe were (a) economics (its cheap and calls are expensive, and you dont pay to receive SMS’s as you do in the US), (b) standardization of data formats drove network effects, a lot of people text so a lot of people text back (c) cultural acceptance of texting and uneasiness with intrusiveness of voice calls in public and (d) little fingers… No wait that is a reason I heard SMS is popular in Asia (?!@), that one, doesn’t apply to Europe. Ok so, these are important enablers but there is more going on. Things I have observed living here and using SMS are:

Basic interactions w/ your cell co. here demonstrates the benefits of texting

In order to use a cell phone here in Europe you need to text or at least read a text. Use of the device for telephony (the reason why most people still buy phones) educates data usage — in the US, SMS is often an added feature that you pay for. Not so here, in Europe its standard. Couple that with the fact that most people prepay it Italy. Lots of reasons for it, but its the norm — so when you load up some time on your phone your carrier sends you an SMS with details. Like wise when you are out of time your carrier sends you an SMS with the calls you have missed (since your phone isn’t working), when you have a voice mail you get a text with details, when move carriers (cross a border) you get a text, you get the idea. And this is before you sign for any special services — anyone for world cup goal alerts?

Ease of use and other product features are different

SMS’s seem to have better threading here in Europe. I want to get back the US and see if this is just a setting on my device, but the default here is that messages are threaded. That makes a difference, messages are more conversational, more fun and more useful. Coupled with the threading they are well archived, so you end up starting a new SMS based on the last one you received from the sender. And SMS’s clearly minimize the social gestures that a phone call requires. You dont need to inquire “how are you”, “how was your weekend” or any of the other standard social niceties that phone conversations often require – you communicate what you need. This might fall into the cultural bucket. Maybe there are more social niceties in language here — that are required on the phone and SMS short cuts them. But SMS’s are short, and on top of that they are very fast. I couldn’t find anything but anecdotal data on this but my experience here is that SMS’s are delivered with greater speed and reliability than in the US. In the US messages can take hours to be delivered, here they usually arrive in a minute or two.

Europeans don’t love voicemail

It seems that voicemail isnt nearly as popular in Europe. At first I thought this was because my Italian is poor that I opt to use SMS instead of voicemail – but I found out that this is what most people do. It seems that Europeans, or at least Italians, don’t use voicemail that much. There are some clear advantages — most importantly the visual interface of SMS is a far faster method of scanning messages than a voice inbox.

SMS is asynchronous and interruptions are managed by the receiver

The fact that SMS is asynchronous and this offers a whole new dimension to communications on your phone, messaging isn’t dependent on state. You can manage how, when and from you who you want to be disturbed. SMS gives you more control over communications. You can do the something similar with voice and caller ID / voicemail but given that SMS is pushed to your phone, the interface is so much quicker to navigate. Whiles this is primarily an interface point — its worth nothing given the paucity of good software on phones. SMS and associated messaging functionality is well placed on the cell deck and well designed for high usage. The metaphors are similar to email, so if you use one switching to the other is easy.

As users and carriers make decisions about how to manage data on devices (on and off deck) its interesting to watch the progression of SMS in a mature text market. Here in Italy the incumbent (TIM) understands SMS well. They seem to be also watching leading indicators from Asia which suggest that a combination of a forward thinking technology strategy with aggressive marketing can keep *voice* arpu, flat to up, let alone data arpu. Data from South Korea suggests this is possible.

Granted the fact that everyone uses it and you dont need to inquire whether you can SMS someone is the single most important detrimantn of usage. But there is more going on here than meets the eye. Understanding the phone as more of texting device vs. talking device changes one’s perspective of whats important in terms of mobile communications.