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Twitter and the realities of SMS

FailTheWhale by Twitter

So Twitter SMS updates are no more. I couldn’t have been less surprised by Biz Stone’s blog post, but it would have been nice for them to have ‘fessed up before they stopped sending the texts. Actually, I’m kind of relieved, as now I know that when the phone beeps, it’s actually a message for me, rather than amusing but ultimately random musings from people far from me.

I’m relieved for another reason too.

Twitter have justified ceasing their “European” service on the basis that they couldn’t reach an agreement with the network operator(s) to provide SMS on the same basis as the US and Indian operators. They haven’t said exactly what the basis is, but I’d bet good money that one of the models proposed was an “offsetting” model, where they only paid for the imbalance between messages received and messages sent. They probably figured if they could get the costs of managing the balance manageable, they could probably cover the remaining costs through advertising.

But I’m glad Twitter weren’t able to get that agreement. I, and many others, have been trying since 2001 to cut a deal that would recognise media operators (radio and TV) as promotional channels that would build SMS traffic, and that we should be given a deal that recognises that. But no deal. And to a large extent, history has proved that SMS has grown to immense proportions in Europe because of the difference in pricing between voice calls and SMS, and not down to a few radio and TV stations using it. It would have created a bunfight of unbelievable scale if Twitter had “done a deal” that wasn’t offered to the rest of us. European telecoms regulators have this very strong sense of “Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discrimanatory“, and I suspect they might have waded in with a view.

Us Europeans are obsessed with SMS, and it generates immense revenues for the networks. On a straight capacity basis, SMS is about the most expensive way to communicate with someone, but it’s created a premiumĀ  niche, occupying a unique space in terms of personal/pervasive/urgency (and of course, flirting). But that isn’t the case in other countries, and I can see that other network operators might like the idea that Twitter could create the “cool” that would see SMS reach the same epic proportions (and profits) as Europe.

I think Europe is going to evolve again, and that evolution will be catalysed by events like this. I’m still connected to Twitter because I have Fring on my mobile and a (virtually) unlimited data plan. Whilst it hammers the battery pretty hard, Fring is my IM client (on which I receive Twitter updates) and my VoIP client (on which I save lots of money, and have a single number that reaches me wherever I am). Coupled up with Opera, GMail and Google Maps apps, and I’m pretty much set for mobile. And that’s all on an elderly Nokia 6680. SMS is still darned handy, but the rest of my connectivity is moving to IP.

IM is the future of messaging, and I’m surprised that more radio stations aren’t offering IM gateways. After the enthusiasm with which we seized SMS early on, it’s time to jump a new breaking wave of talking to listeners, and particularly those younger listeners we find it difficult to communicate with. Interoperability is a big barrier (it’s hard to chat to someone not on the same system as you), and there isn’t the same commercial imperative to fix that (remember, SMS used to be “same network only” when it launched, but the lure of 10p per message soon fixed that problem).

So Twitter isn’t invincible, and isn’t above the rest of us. It’s just another media company, battling for attention, share of mind, and eventually, ad revenue.

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