Before starting, just a quick warning that the title of this post is very exaggerated. But I like how it sounds…

The Short Messaging Service (SMS) has been for year by far (let me insist: BY FAR) the most used and profitable cellular service. Initially designed as an optional service on the GSM specs, this service that allows users to send short text messages with up to 160 characters quickly became very popular. SMSs were particularly popular in Europe initially, back in the early 2000s, and it took off later, around 2005, in the US. Some people argue that the reason is that a phone call in Europe is quite more expensive than in the US.

Sooner or later, teenagers – and not so young people as well – all over the world started working out their finger muscles by typing text messages on their fancy Nokia phones – in the good old times, having a Nokia was the equivalent in terms of coolness to having an iPhone today -. Some studies that analyze the load the SMS network can transport assume that an average user is able to input a 160 character text message in… one minute! I have no idea how they estimated that, but typing a message on an “old” phone took me easily a couple of minutes. That was the reason – and not the fact that in the US, I still don;t understand why, I have to pay when I send and when I receive a message… what if I have friends who like to text a lot? – that I was not very prone to sending text messages here in America until my recent “upgrade” to an iPhone.

An interesting article on the NY Times a few years ago summarized the love story between Americans and SMSs.

The rise of SMSs was so drastic that it even became a new “threat” – perhaps calling it vulnerability would be more appropriate… – for the network. Not that much here in the US, but we Europeans all know what happens on New Year’s Eve every year. On January 1st late in the evening you are still receiving texts – some of them drunk texts – from your friends from the previous night. Also, it is literally impossible to make a phone call after midnight until the next morning. (For expats like me, here is my trick: I call mama and papa at 5.55pm – 23.55 in Barcelona – and get into the new year with them on the phone holding the line). Other problems related to SMS is the popularity they have for Emergency Alert System deployment. Specially ever since the Virginia Tech incidents, many schools in the US have deployed systems where, in case of an emergency, every single student will receive an SMS right away. Well, let me just say this will never work. You’ll get the word out there faster if you just go to every single dorm room and tell them in person. Actually, it has been seen in the wild often how this kind of EAS systems perform with huge delays (one example and another one) and even congest the network avoiding legitimate users to access the spectrum.

The load of SMSs has spiked in such a way that current estimates determined a total number of 187.7 billion text messages being sent monthly. This was mainly because – until now – the main cellular providers in the US kept presenting steady increases in SMS load.

Well, it seems this might be coming to an end. I read in the news this morning that this semester, for the first time ever, the growth of text message usage has stopped and looks like it might start to decline. Many reasons are involved in this change, being the main one – according to the experts… and, why not, to me too – is that smart phones are spreading at such a rate that nowadays virtually everyone owns one. Either powered by iOS, Android or Windows, these devices often dozens of apps and ways to send real time push messages (so, like an SMS but with the difference that, unlike a text message, a push message will get to your date who you are trying to warn you are late for dinner on time and not a couple of minutes late) and even chat. A very popular one – at least in Catalunya and part of Spain – is called Whatsapp. I personally hate it, not because of its functionality, but because my iPhone, for some reason beyond my understanding, store it in my Catalan dictionary after a friend texted me about it. Now, every time I start to write a text in English with the Catalan dictionary activated, the moment I start writing w-h-a-… my smart smartphone completes the word automatically “whatsapp”. I hate when it happens.

Anyhow, I am just speculating here, but it doesn’t seem to be good times for SMS. Declining growth and users preferring to send push messages (with better quality and delay… and free!), things seem to be changing. Also, with the advent of LTE, what will be the future for the SS7-based SMS network once everything is IP-based? Will operators still be ‘allowed’ to charge us for short messages if they are just an IP packet I could send for free from any app? We’ll see.

UPDATE (6/9/2011): The Wall Street Journal publishes an interesting article were it describes the struggling of carriers with the decrease of SMS load and the advent of IP-based free alternatives.