Cyber Culture: The warped economics of the text message

 

The biggest trick the world's mobile networks ever pulled was to persuade us that paying around 10p to send a text message was a good deal. You can imagine boardrooms reverberating to the sound of laughter as gargantuan sums were scrawled on whiteboards – trillions of SMS messages, minimal costs, billions in revenue. What's surprising is that we've taken so long to twig that the feat of delivering 160 bytes of data really isn't really worth that much reward.

Many of us have been tweeting from mobile phones for years, barely denting our monthly data allowances, while similar messages sent via SMS have incurred wildly disproportionate charges. The old statistic – a 5p text message is more than 40 times more expensive than retrieving data from the Hubble Space Telescope – is still relevant today; for example, Vodafone's pay-as-you-go customers still fork out 12p for a standard rate text.

Of course, unlimited texts are now a feature of most pay monthly plans in the UK, but SMS still represents a mighty cash cow for mobile networks; 9.6 trillion texts will be sent in 2012, and annual revenue is predicted to grow to $150bn by 2013. But the number of texts we're sending is levelling off and dipping because of the growth of OTT – over-the-top messaging – that's routed via the internet. Apps such as Apple's iMessage, Blackberry's BBM and the cross-platform WhatsApp make a mockery of SMS; they duplicate the functionality, but the service is free.

The rise of OTT is costing the networks dear. A study by Ovum estimated that it represented $8.7bn in lost revenue in 2010, rising to $13.9bn in 2011 and continuing to rise this year. Telecom Italia chief executive Franco Bernabe said recently at the Mobile World Congress that lower SMS revenues would "significantly affect" the ability of the mobile networks to invest, no doubt prompting sarcastic boo-hoos from customers who are switching to OTT in droves. WhatsApp claims to process some 2 billion messages per day, and reportedly carries more messages on the Blackberry platform than Blackberry's own BBM application. iMessage, with its blue-tinted bubbles, is the darling of iPhone users. But the dark horse of OTT is Facebook Messenger.

It's not riding high in the app charts, but Facebook's billion-strong user base gives it huge potential power, with friends waiting to be contacted with a single tap. And Facebook is capitalising on this opportunity. Last week, Android users in India, Indonesia, Venezuela, Australia and South Africa were able to sign up to Facebook using only a phone number – purely to take advantage of cheap messaging and to avoid SMS charges. It's coming to other countries soon, and there are rumours that Facebook has its sights set on buying WhatsApp to consolidate its messaging position.The SMS won't suddenly disappear. As a function that's present on even the simplest handsets, all mobile users have access to it, while OTT exchanges rely on both parties owning the same app.

SMS is still voted the top function of a handset that people can't live without, and it's one that the majority people understand and use; 75 per cent of US mobile phone owners send texts, while fewer than half use data. But with OTT apps now presenting such stiff competition, surely the days of the anomalously priced SMS are numbered.

Apple's iTunes is devolving as it gets more advanced

Anyone who's used an Apple device over the past few years will have been forced to contend with the bloated monstrosity that is iTunes.

Since its introduction nearly 12 years ago, it's gone from being a simple "rip, mix and burn" MP3 jukebox to being a storefront, a movie player, a music recommendation engine and much else besides.

Behemoth-like and sluggish, you could never jettison it because Apple devices required you to use it for set-up, syncing and updating. It wasn't much loved.

But it's had a December facelift, and is now described as "dramatically simplified". It's not, particularly; the only features to disappear are ones that many of us didn't use anyway, such as the auto-detection of duplicates and the scrolling Cover Flow display. But it is substantially prettier, which is something, and some irritating anomalies have been ironed out, which is something, too.

But perhaps the best thing about iTunes in 2012 is that it's now possible to do without it. Updating your iDevice can happen over the air. If you use iTunes Match – with all your songs stored in the cloud – you need never sync music with a computer.

And if you want recommendations – well, you were always better off consulting Spotify or last.fm in any case.

Your personal electronics aren't quite weapons of mass destruction

I recently went on my first flight in about four years, and was surprised not to be told to turn off my tablet during take-off and landing. Maybe this was neglect of duty on the part of the cabin crew, and I'm such a nervous flyer that I turned it off in any case, terrified that my swiping and pinching would somehow impinge on the pilot's ability to manipulate the ailerons successfully. But maybe we'll soon have carte blanche to use our gadgets to soothe our nerves in those nervous moments below 10,000 feet.

Last week the US Federal Communications Commission sent a letter to another government agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, urging the relaxation of the use of electronics on aeroplanes. There's long been a debate surrounding the effects of electronics on avionics, if any; analysts point out that any connection is anecdotal, and that incidents are difficult to reproduce in testing.

The airlines, perhaps understandably, have operated an "err on the side of caution" policy. But American Airlines pilots use iPads in the cockpit during take-off and landing, which begs two questions: a) why can't we? and b) have they not got enough on their plates with flying the plane?

Why one third of Britons do their Christmas shopping on the loo

Reading on the loo seems to be culturally acceptable, at least in the UK. Piles of magazines and lightly humorous books sit in bathrooms across the nation, giving us something to distract us during that most private of moments. But a couple of studies done recently have explored our online habits during bathroom activity.

A survey by myvouchercodes.co.uk (God knows why they did the poll, but they did) showed they 33 per cent of Britons have admitted to doing Christmas shopping on the toilet; 5 per cent said they did all of it in the washroom, while 10 per cent said they did some of it on someone else's loo. How festive.

In America, meanwhile, a third of 18-24-year-olds have confessed to using social media while perched on the can. If you find that surprising, visit any gents toilet on a Friday night in a city centre, and you'll observe the unedifying spectacle of rows of men aiming with one hand and scrolling through Facebook with the other. You could either view this as a sociologically significant development, a reflection of our strengthening bond with our peers across social media, or a sad indictment of declining standards of hygiene and personal etiquette. Now wash your hands.

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