Recently I was wondering about the difference in user behavior around SMS depending on whether SMS is used as part of an "all you can eat" contract or paid individually on a message to message basis. When thinking about it I started reflecting on how SMS evolved and how it how it could be perceived in 10 years from now. Here's a bit of past, present and future as it looks to me:
The SMS service has undergone tremendous change since it's first use in the middle of the 1990's. Initially, it was unclear to most people in the industry if users would even have an interest in the service. So, even though SMS was created at the same time as GSM voice service, SMS service was only introduced a few years after the first GSM networks came into operation. For more details on that part of the history on SMS, I can recommend this book.
Other indications that SMS was an uncut gem in the early years are that the first GSM phones did not support SMS at all and some of the first ones that did, such as the Ericsson GH-172 and GH-174 from 1992/93, could only receive SMS messages but not send them. An anecdote that I was recently told by someone who was working on SMS at the time has it that in those years, network operators even had difficulties finding incumbent companies that were developing other GSM network equipment to build them an SMS service center as they saw no market opportunity to such equipment. This matches with the Wikipedia entry on SMS which says in the "early implementation" section that the first SMS message was sent from a PC to a phone via an SMS Service Center by Aldiscon, a company only founded in 1988.
Over the years, SMS has become a phenomenally successful with billions of messages sent single day now and perception has significantly changed. Today, many people still pay per use, i.e. they pay for each message separately. In the US one even pays for incoming SMS messages un less the user is on an unlimited plan. These have also become quite popular in other parts of the world and unlimited plans have completely changed usage behaviors. Instead of one shot messages, unlimited plans invite to use the service as a conversational tool, shooting back messages back and forth and using SMS in a similar way as people have used instant messengers for many years. Obviously, this fuels the grow of the service and also its popularity.
So how will people perceive SMS messaging in 10 years from now? First, who is we? Even today, SMS is used differently in different parts of the world, so I'll concentrate on Europe for now. Perhaps it will look odd at some point that there was something like "pay per SMS message" in the first place. Perhaps, with smartphones and Internet based services becoming the norm rather than the exception, SMS interactive communication will play a diminished role as people resort to instant messengers they already know from their PC and Wi-Fi tablet!?
Another interesting line of thought is that unlike voice calls, SMS is easy to port or be replaced in IP only wireless networks such as LTE, as instant messengers have existed in fixed line networks for many many years and the service is non-real time and non-streaming. In other words, handovers between different radio technologies are no issue at all compared that to the LTE voice call handover issue which is still unsolved in practice.
And a final thought for this post today: Perhaps SMS will become or remain an alternative for people who like privacy and services that don't store and analyze messages for targeted advertising, building social graphs, etc. After all, unlike for web based services for which users don't pay anything and are in fact NOT the customer but only a source of information that can be monetized and on top give up some of their privacy, for the SMS service they might still be that: The customer, who pays for the service of sending and receiving messages, free from other needs of monetization such as selling information gained to third parties.