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The Brits Have Got It

Perhaps it has something to do with the origins of text messaging, which can be traced back to 1992, when the first message from a land-based PC to a mobile device was sent in the UK as a part of initial GSM Phase I testing. Commercially, SMS became available in Britain about 1996, and it so captured the imagination of the British public that three-fourths of all citizens are SMS users (sending some 42 million messages every day).

The year 1996 was about the same time that Microsoft's free Hotmail and AOL's e-mail catch phrase "You've Got Mail" became all the rage in the States. As Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks brought the fantasy of e-mail love to life on our VCRs, we raced for our terminals. Americans made a beeline for fixed-lines because they were so available and so cheap, whereas huge populations overseas gravitated to the airwaves for ostensibly the same reasons.

By June 2001, the BBC was dedicating an entire programming day entitled "The Joy of Text" to various message exchanges. The Videoclash series from MTV has aired music videos by SMS requests that have generated nearly 70,000 messages per show. Germans displayed their softer side, sending 100,000 Valentine's Day text messages, which scrolled across the bottom of MTV's programs for about $.43 cents a pop. However, the fizz falls flat in Peoria.

"IMO" (In my opinion), the fundamental keys to the American problem have been standards and interoperability. Ironically, the biggest hurdle for the U.S. market has been the same attribute that has made SMS adaptation easy and created such a winner overseas. Europe has had one mobile standard since the inception of wireless: GSM. Thus, in Europe, a text message sent by a BT (British Telecom) mobile customer was easily received by an Orange, Deustche Telecom, or Vivendi customer—no matter where they were located throughout the region. For the European operators, this will mean some $44 billion in revenues from SMS alone, according to the Yankee Group. At 15 to 25 percent of total revenues, text messaging is not a bad chunk of change for this beleaguered group of overseas telecoms that had been experiencing tremendous financial woes and thus lost a great deal of their luster in the financial markets of recent years.

Even the Canadian wireless industry has jumped ahead of the Americans, having launched SMS interoperability in a cooperative effort between the four majors: Canada Bell Mobility, Microcell PCS (Fido), Rogers AT&T Wireless, and TELUS Mobility. After six months of planning, it was announced on April 2, 2002 that Canada's platform for interoperability—CMG's Wireless Data Solutions Inter-Short Message Service Center Router (ISR)—was live and ready for SMS business. By contrast, customers of Britain's Orange, Cellnet, and One 2 One have been able to exchange written messages since 1999. UK's teens made the switch from voice to data seamlessly.

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