Are IM apps really going to take over SMS?

Arguably the biggest revolution in mobile communications of the past 10 years came with the introduction of the smartphone. Before then mobiles might have become much sleeker, lighter and attractive, but aside from aesthetics the changes were relatively small-scale.

Then, of course, the smartphone came along and changed the mobile landscape forever.

Suddenly, emails could be checked on the go or social networks logged into in the middle of nowhere. Large, sophisticated screens took the place of physical buttons and suddenly “checking in” wasn’t something people exclusively did at hotels or airports.

The smartphone revolution also brought with it another change: that of the instant messaging (IM) service. Apps such as WhatsApp and Snapchat enabled users to send text and images across their networks without eating in to their text allowance.

Such services proved popular and it wasn’t long before app download volumes stretched into the millions. As is typical with such new technology, however, IM services also brought out the naysayers, who claimed they were sounding the death knell for the humble text as we know it.

Despite this, the reality could be somewhat different. Here’s why:

Not everyone has a smartphone

One of the simplest answers is that not everyone has a smartphone. Some even choose to seek out older models, favouring the more simple devices because, what they lack in mod cons, they more than make up for in usability and battery life.

Whilst many of those who haven’t yet made the switch may well choose to do so in the future, the case as it stands is that smartphones are not yet as prevalent as some may be claiming.

For businesses, this prevalence of older devices is the critical issue, as most – if not all – will want to ensure that every single one their contacts can receive messages effectively and in the correct format. Therefore, SMS marketing provides a way of reaching the mobile audience regardless of the device they are using, whether it’s the newest, most up-to-date models or those a little more basic.

There is a precedent, your honour

The closest comparative to the SMS vs IM debate is that between social media and email, which has been rumbling along now for years.

Whilst comments had been made beforehand, the first real shot came from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, who used a high profile event in early 2011 to claim that social media was not only doing everything email could, but better and with more on top. Sandberg said that, for proof of social media’s future dominance, all anyone needed to do was look at what the young were doing, as they are widely known to hop on hot trends before anyone else.

Sandberg’s view, however was called up on being rather myopic and not taking in all the details. It was said that, whilst the majority of young people may have social media accounts, many of those who weren’t brought up as technology natives did not. Conversely, nearly all web users have at least one email account, regardless of their age.

Email was also deemed to be the more official of the two, being the channel through which most users would prefer to receive communications. The result is that, some years on, email still hasn’t lost out to social media.

Similarly, IM may be the preserve of the young, but it’s not nearly as popular among the older generation. As mentioned above, all smartphones are mobiles, but not all mobiles are smartphones. Thus, some mobile users are simply not able to download the apps but can still send and receive messages perfectly happily.

Do data limitations still exist with Smartphones?

Mobile contracts have seen a marked change in recent years. The days of limiting calls and texts are largely gone, as networks now qualify their price plans based on data. Even the entry-level contracts come with unlimited calls and texts, whilst data usage instead becomes the key differentiator.

This means that whilst users are free to call and text as much as they like, data is where they must be careful. Going over the limits will result in one of two outcomes. The first is an exile from any apps, tools or browsing that uses mobile network data, whilst the other is a hefty bill at the end of the month.

As IM services are subject to this variable, whilst texts and calls are not, it means that even those with smartphones that use such apps may not be able to access them as readily as they can the SMS inbox.

These three issues alone should go some way to explain why it is unlikely that instant messaging systems should bring about the end of text messages any time soon. Certainly, the news that more IMs were sent in one month than text messages was deserving of its widespread coverage, but that needn’t be the end of texts. Instead, the truth looks set to follow in the footsteps of social media and email: that the two aren’t quite as similar as they may first appear and can happily live side-by-side, each servicing similar but sufficiently different markets.

Coverage may have been widespread, but reports of SMS’s death look almost certain to have been exaggerated.