SMS vs OTT: The evolution of mobile messaging

Technology has revolutionised communication. We can now talk to anyone, wherever they are, at very little cost. The first turning point of this shift was arguably the invention of the email in the early 1970s, but the biggest milestone since has undoubtedly been the advent of SMS.

In December 1992, British mobile engineer Neil Papworth sent the first ever text message: a quick “Merry Christmas” to Vodafone’s Richard Jarvis. The technology has been growing in popularity ever since, and it’s now the first choice of millions of people across the world.

A global phenomenon

SMS has changed the world, and the stats prove it. According to Portio Research, almost 7.5 trillion texts were sent in 2014 – that’s the equivalent of around 1,000 for every person on the planet. In the UK alone, 140 billion texts were sent, with the average Brit typing out seven every day.

The constant growth is driven by advancements in mobile technology, with manufacturers constantly bringing out newer, more powerful devices to the delight of eagerly waiting consumers. More than this, though, handsets are getting cheaper. This means they’re reaching new markets, like Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

A new challenger has entered

The stats above are impressive, but it’s interesting to note that the figures recorded a couple of years previously are even higher. The number of messages sent globally was actually two per cent greater in 2013, meaning Brits sent an extra five billion messages over the course of the year. Now, this is the first time we’ve seen such a drop, but it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed.

Any search for the reasons behind this decline will be short. Over the past couple of years we’ve seen some real growth in the use of over-the-top (OTT) messaging services. In laymen’s terms these are internet-based instant messaging services like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Skype.

Once again, the statistics tell the story well. In its recent Mobile Messenger Trends report, GlobalWebIndex revealed that 600 million adults aged 16-64 were using OTT services in 2014 – up by almost a third on 2012’s figures.

The pros and cons of OTT

The rise of OTT has been fuelled once again by the evolution of mobile technology, but also by increases in Wi-Fi and mobile data availability. Hotspots can be found pretty easily these days, and most pay-monthly contracts include enough data to last even the most social of smartphone users.

Most of these programs are free, meaning users only have to pay for their internet connection (if necessary) and the device they use.

As with most technologies, however, there are downsides.

There are plenty of different internet-based messaging applications out there. We’ve already mentioned some of the most popular, and the market is expanding rapidly as new developers and existing tech industry players attempt to capitalise on growing demand. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. Very few – if any – of the platforms out there are compatible with others; instead, they are in competition. What this means is that one group of friends is likely to use one platform, while another group will be relying on something else entirely. This is far from ideal for marketers. While some programs will always be bigger than others, you inevitably end up with pockets of different audiences.

As is often the case with internet-reliant technologies, security is also an issue to consider. Most messages will be encrypted but flaws have been exposed in even the biggest applications’ defences in recent years. With these programs often given access to full contact lists as well, it’s not just the main user at risk – it could be their friends and family members too.

The SMS solution

Despite having been around much longer, SMS solves all of the issues raised above, while also offering users and marketers plenty of other benefits.

For one, SMS is a standard as opposed to services offered by individual companies. It’s used in handsets made by all manufacturers, and doesn’t require the user to download any applications to get started. This opens the audience up massively – you don’t need to work out what program the person you want to reach is using.

While the popularity of OTT is definitely growing, it has a long way to go before it can match the reach of SMS. This is largely because messaging apps can only be used on smartphones with internet connectivity. Conventional text messaging, however, can be carried out on pretty much any mobile phone. This means it’s possible to reach the demographic groups and emerging markets where feature phones still outnumber their more advanced counterparts.

Looking ahead

With the growing user numbers in mind, it’s clear that OTT messaging is having a big impact on human communication. As internet and smartphone availability grows, this is only likely to increase. For marketers, there is certainly potential, but the downsides at present are too significant to ignore. Fortunately, they’re downsides not shared by SMS.

For now at least, most businesses will be staying loyal to the trusty old text message, but who knows what could happen in the future, as developments that are currently only the stuff of imagination start to become reality.