James Kobielus: SMS puts an end to paging

Messaging Map

Messaging has many new frontiers, and cellular-based Short Message Service is one of the most promising. SMS is fast developing into one of the most important messaging services, so important that it will soon drive older paging services into an early grave.

A significant development in this regard took place last month, when Motorola Inc. announced it is pulling out of the market for traditional paging infrastructure and handsets in favour of developing two-way technologies for use in wireless phones. The company’s Wireless Messaging Division will focus now on providing SMS products for use on networks for GSM, General Packet Radio Service and Code Division Multiple Access protocols. At the same time, Motorola announced it is discontinuing products that support the ReFlex protocol, which Motorola developed in the 1990s for traditional two-way paging carriers such as Skytel Communications Inc. and Arch Wireless Inc.

Even before Motorola’s announcement, the trends in mobile text-messaging were clear. Over the next several years, enterprise users will come to rely on one principal handheld client: the smart cell phone. Increasingly, users are embracing SMS-enabled smartphones as integrated clients for mobile voice, messaging, browsing and other services. Cellular carriers’ SMS offerings will absorb much of the growth in the mobile-messaging market at the expense of two-way paging companies, unless the latter can deliver their service to the new generation of smartphones. That’s highly doubtful, given SMS’ lockhold on that market.

SMS is on a fast track to universal adoption by the cellular subscribers of the world. As generally deployed by carriers, SMS primarily pushes notifications of new voice messages down to smart cell phones. However, users have adopted it as a two-way person-to-person messaging medium.

SMS’ role in application infrastructures will expand. SMS will become the universal alerting and notification service, a handy infrastructure for pushing quick messages in response to reported events. The components of this universal SMS infrastructure are rapidly falling into place. Most premises-based, mobile-access gateways and servers already provide interfaces to SMS. A growing range of vendors have products that enable SMS message routing and delivery by carriers and wireless application service providers. And an increasing number of service providers offer SMS backbone-routing services to bridge otherwise-incompatible SMS carrier services.

But SMS is not the total story in mobile messaging. It is a limited, mobile-messaging service that often requires users to provide a different e-mail account than when they’re on the road to let others reach them. Companies have to integrate SMS alongside other mobile messaging services, including e-mail and instant messaging (IM). Users will continue to rely on PDAs and notebooks to support mobile access to full-featured e-mail and groupware.

To support this scenario, enterprise and carrier messaging systems will need to support SMS in their mobile gateways, while retaining Simple Mail Transfer Protocol as their backbone-routing protocol.

To manage SMS alongside other mobile-messaging features, users will need the ability to set up automated rules in their premises-based messaging systems for forwarding SMS-based notifications or truncated versions of incoming e-mail messages to handheld clients. And as SMS begins to pervade the corporate application infrastructure, users may wonder whether wireless IM is a more appropriate service for pushing out time-sensitive notifications. IM will become an important mobility service because continuous “presence” is one of the main reasons people carry cell phones. Nevertheless, SMS will prove its worth through its store-and-forward capabilities, which conform to the intermittently connected nature of wireless usage.

These issues will surface in most companies as SMS continues its steady climb to ubiquity, providing the crucial “anytime, anywhere” alert service on which dynamic business operations depend.

Kobielus is a senior analyst with The Burton Group Corp., an IT advisory service that provides technology analysis for network planners. He can be reached at (703) 924-6224 or jkobielus