The trend back to text messages

Posted on September 24, 2014

This past weekend I had the opportunity to judge some of the amazing hacks at Hack the North. There were almost 200 projects and our group of judges had approximately 40 to review.  There were a surprising number of hacks that focused on leveraging text messages (SMS) to provide core functionality or augment the experience so the user did not have to install an application.  This goes against the current trend where everyone is bundling and building their own mobile applications.

The best example over the weekend offered users the ability to text a big database in the cloud to get answers.  The value proposition being that you could send a simple text message to get answers to factual questions.  I asked the team why they created it and the students responded saying sometimes it is easier to simply send a text than to download or load an application.  One person mentioned it would be available “offline” when they didn’t have data coverage. As a marketing ploy, they branded it after Kanye West and users could also text the service to get “classic” Kanye advice.

I remember a world where mobile browsers sucked or didn’t really exist yet.  Back in the days when your browser supported standards like the Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) which attempted to translate HTML to a mobile friendly format.  Way back in 2002, WAP was intended to provide carriers with yet another way to control access to content (they ran the WAP gateway) along with compressing content sent to mobile devices.  The experience was poor (on the best of days) and so numerous services started popping up to allow users to leverage text messages or email to request information.  One of the most popular back then was AskMeNow which didn’t even attempt to actually automate the responses (again this was back in the mid-2000s) but rather employed people to respond to your emails with answers they obtained by searching Google.  The perfect example of a “lean startup minimal viable product”.

Now, 10+ years later, I am surprised to see the movement back towards text messages and other solutions including extremely sophisticated websites that do not require an app download.  Pinpnt.me was a hack at the event that was pitched based on its ability to solve a problem (share your location with friends to help facilitate an in-person meeting) that intentionally did not require an app download since you wouldn’t use it frequently enough.

The part that surprises me isn’t that this trend is occurring but rather that it took so long.  Back in 2007 Apple launched the iPhone without the ability to run apps because they believed you could do everything using the mobile web.  When I was at BlackBerry, we created platforms like WebWorks because we believed that developers would shift to using HTML/CSS/Javascript to write applications rather than using custom languages for each device.  There would always be categories of applications that were better written in native languages (games are a great example) but that many solutions could be delivered over the web with a great experience.  Yet, that experience and offering of solutions never materialized in a meaningful way.  Perhaps we are ready for it now…


No Replies to "The trend back to text messages"


    Got something to say?

    Some html is OK