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My fellow Americans, we are curious.
The United States is one of the few large countries where SMS, a texting technology that originated in the 1980s, is the standard way to chat.
In many other countries, text messaging comes from Meta on a smartphone app like WhatsApp, a company formerly known as Facebook. WeChat is popular in China and Line Japan. Those messages travel over the Internet instead of phone lines like SMS texts.
The SMS of America is the pros and cons of exception. The biggest advantage of SMS is that it works on almost any phone, and we are not locked into the communications world of one company. The drag is that SMS has security flaws, and lacks the features of modern chat apps like your friend has read your message or the ability to initiate a video call by text.
The continued prevalence of SMS in the US is a reminder that the most resilient technologies are not necessarily the best. There is another way that American smartphone habits are unlike the rest of the world which can be helpful but can also stop us.
I know a lot of Americans use whatever text app they have on their phone and don’t think much about it. Fine! But let me explain why we should reflect a little on this communication technology.
If you’re an American with an iPhone, you probably use iMessage. Those messages flow across the Internet like you see on Netflix – unless you text someone with an Android phone, and then your text is SMS. Clear as mud? And if you’re texting from an Android phone… it’s complicated, but you’re probably using some flavor of SMS.
The bottom line is that the US uses SMS at volumes that most other countries do not.
Here’s an example: In 2020, one trillion personal and commercial messages traveled through the Companion image technology in the US, known as SMS or MMS. The figure was eight billion in Germany, according to an analysis by mobile research firm Strategy Analytics.
When Germans text, they tend to use WhatsApp, the go-to method of chat in India, Britain, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, France and many other countries.
What’s the big deal if America’s texting relies on phone lines? Well, SMS is an old and bad technology that clumsily combines with the new.
WeChat, WhatsApp, Signal and other sophisticated texting apps often allow users to see what’s online from their friends, send high-definition images and animations, share physical locations with the people they’re texting, and send money directly. Connects with apps in chat. Or do other tasks.
About half of US smartphone owners have an iPhone and they live in this modern chat world unless they communicate with Android phone users. SMS handles most of the above tasks with difficulty.
Basic texts may be correct in many cases, but SMS also has security limitations. In new TV commercials, WhatsApp insists that SMS is vulnerable to snoopers or criminals reading our messages. Similar apps like WhatsApp and Signal use technology that locks text from the eyes. This encryption technology is criticized because it also hides law enforcement messages.
I want to stick to the simple beauty of SMS. You can’t use WhatsApp to text your friend using iMessage, but SMS is universal. And I feel uncomfortable suggesting that everyone should use WhatsApp and make a big tech company the gateway to all our digital communications.
I asked Nitesh Patel, director of wireless media research at Strategy Analytics, if there was a middle ground between America’s reliance on SMS and corporate apps like WhatsApp becoming the digital front door. Patel cited a more updated cousin for SMS known as RCS or rich communication services. (I know, the chatter is awful.)
RCS is a mess, but it has more advanced features than SMS and is much more secure. Like SMS, it is a shared technology that is not controlled by a single company. Google has overtaken RCS, and has replaced SMS texting on some Android phones. But Apple will probably never go with it, which means RCS will never be a universal texting technology.
The good news about the status quo of American texting is that it is one of the few areas of technology where the corporate giant does not dominate our choices. Now we need to get SMS to cool down a bit.
Before we go
Google’s parent company Earned a lot of money. Again,
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