The Cost of SMS (is a feature, not a bug)


Nothing is free. Whether it's our time or money or attention or data, every interaction that we have with the world around us costs something. There are very few markets where that idea is more central and often misunderstood than in mobile messaging.

SMS is undoubtedly the ugly duckling of the mobile messaging industry, which is strange considering that it is also its most successful platform (by a huge margin). Despite that, SMS has been overlooked or ignored by most major technologists, who either bemoan its limitations or predict its imminent demise. Still, SMS has grown continuously for 22 years and its limitations are the very foundations of its success. The cost, limits, and distributed ownership of SMS are features, not bugs.

Cost: Mobile network operators throttle SMS by charging per message and setting volume limits, making it expensive and difficult to send blast messages. This can be a good thing, because it forces the people using the platform to apply a cost/benefit analysis about whether the messages they’re sending are valuable enough to justify the budget. That same analysis has also, in many sectors, catalyzed a deeper recognition of the value of two-way communication. In order for two-way communication to be effective, especially at scale, there has to be value for both parties – that doesn’t always mean financial value, but clear, understandable utility. The cost of SMS forces us to focus on value, equality of attention, and economy of expression.

Limits: When it comes to SMS, there are a lot – but two big ones: (1) character length limits and (2) sending volume limits. In other words, you have to be brief and you have to be targeted (to a specific person or group of people). The combination of these two things, though, compels users to target messages based on the interests and context of the recipient. Communications, like relationships, happen in context – but regardless of context, efficiency and targeted interactions are worth the premium that SMS costs.

Distributed Ownership: One of the biggest complaints about SMS is not that you have to pay for them, but that you have to pay telecoms for them. Telecoms already make a lot of money and SMS is not something that independently costs them anything, so surely they shouldn’t charge us for it. While that’s true, SMS is a platform that is served by multiple companies, not a single product, meaning that you also can’t get stuck with one provider. All of your SMS relationships and interactions are portable across companies and – even more powerfully – because there’s not a single brand associated with SMS, it is also able to transcend the expectations that come with a single social context.

Social context is one of the most important and least understood determinants of the success and growth of mobile products. Recently, Andrew Watts wrote a piece where he talked about teenage perceptions of social media (expertly contextualized by Danah Boyd here). Regardless of whether you agree with his characterizations of each platform, what’s striking is that perceptions of each platform aren’t based on their features, but on the way that they frame social expectations. For example, Snapchat isn’t unique because it’s a multi-media sharing platform, but because the messages are ephemeral, changing the social settings in which it’s appropriate (and thus the content that gets shared through it). As Andrew McLaughlin notes, one of Snapchat’s major limitations-as-a-feature (which it also shares with SMS) is how uncommon (or technically difficult) it is to automatically add contacts without context. With SMS and Snapchat, though, the optimization for social and contextual opt-ins helps users focus on their relationships, as opposed to the brand of the platform.

Many Over the Top (OTT) platforms are converging - either moving from being broadcast content publishers that include personal messaging as a throwaway feature (i.e – Twitter, Facebook) or from messaging platforms that are moving toward broadcast content publishing (i.e. – Snapchat, WhatsApp). Most of these platforms enable you to connect with as many people as quickly as possible because your social graph, theoretically the people who have agreed to give you their contact information at some point, is a commodity. What’s interesting about that, however, is that even when platforms develop private communication features, people tend to use them inline with the social context that defines that platform.

In other words, platforms come to represent the social context in which we encounter them or the social context that the platform’s brand tells us they represent. That social context can vary by person, but the platform’s brand tends to be a unifying characteristic that sets the tone of how it’s used.

If you apply that same brand and context analysis to SMS – focusing on the social effect of its limitations, as opposed to it’s purely technological features – it turns out that the world’s oldest digital messaging platform is optimized for targeted, valuable information from people that we know, personally. By optimizing for social opt-ins, brevity, and value per interaction, SMS is (still) almost entirely unique amongst its younger messaging peers. As messaging platforms continue to evolve and adapt to social and professional contexts, there will no doubt be new challenges that alter and drive consumer behavior. That said, until there is a platform that does a better job of reaching everyone with targeted, valuable messages that respect their time and attention, SMS will remain a critical part of the world’s communication infrastructure.