Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Texting is broken and only the big telcos can fix it

With news of the arrival of Blackberry's BBM messaging on iPhones and Androids, surely it is time to declare the text message dead. Now that Blackberry's option has been added to the array of modern, multimedia choices, who would want to use something as clunky as the old SMS?

After all, we have seen an explosion of smartphone messaging apps in the past few years, and they all offer significant benefits over texting. Apple has its iMessage, while Google uses its new Hangouts service on Android, each of which offer limitless, instantaneous communication, almost for free. Meanwhile, such third-party services as Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp and Kik Messenger have amassed huge user bases, largely by focusing on group chats and allowing people with different brands of phones to stay in touch. Now that Canada's own BBM is set to be available to hundreds of millions more, the hoary 160-character text message looks positively archaic in comparison.

But far from celebrating the death of SMS, the proliferation of proprietary, closed messengers is reason to think about resurrecting the humble text – or, even better, a newer, more modern alternative.

Story continues below advertisement

Consider this: let's say you have a shiny new Blackberry, and when BBM is released for the iPhone, you wanted to use it communicate with your Apple-toting friends. Inevitably, you have to e-mail or text them to download the new app. Similarly, if you want to chat with a group of friends, but some pals are on Whatsapp and others on Facebook's service, you either have to convince them to switch, or you're simply out of luck. It's not only a bit comical, it's also hardly the frictionless future of messaging we were promised.

The obvious problem is that, ideally, communication services should be based on neutral standards rather than proprietary apps. Maybe no platform exemplifies this better than Facebook. Its recent Home application attempts to become the default messenger for your Android phone, bypassing SMS entirely in favour of only connecting with other friends on Facebook. By embracing the desires of these companies to have their service become the default one, we've slipped away from the basic premise of communication technology: that independent of what device or software you use, it should let you get in touch with whomever you want, however you want.

Clearly, the exodus from texting stems from the current drawbacks of SMS. Beyond the obvious 160-character limit and difficulty attaching pictures and video, the main issue currently is carriers. If some plans in Canada can still charge 15 cents a message, it's not hard to understand why so many have flocked to the closed systems offered by phone and app makers.

But rather than abandoning SMS what would better serve consumers is a revamped version of texting that combines the many benefits of new apps with the neutrality and universality of the old text. There are, after all, many good features in these new apps: messages can sync between a phone and a tablet or PC; group chats are much easier to conduct; some are built on sending large photos and videos; and best of all, because they simply use a device's data connection, they often don't add any cost. Imagine a successor to texting that had all of those benefits, but worked as universally and seamlessly as a phone number or an e-mail address. That is the goal we should be aiming for.

Getting a wide group of telecom companies, hardware makers, and software developers to agree on a new standard is never easy. But ultimately, given the nature of the application, it is likely telecom companies who need to step up and create a new way of messaging among themselves. They have a clear motivation, too: chat apps have now surpassed texting in volume, and it's a trend that will continue. If carriers wish to remain relevant and competitive, they will need to provide a new alternative to the overpriced, limited messaging they offer now.

Because ultimately, having the way we keep in touch cordoned off into walled gardens of Google, Facebook or Blackberry is, to put it plainly, silly. It's also a situation where the needs of business are put over those of people. So, as odd as it may sound, the spate of new messaging platforms is precisely the reason we need to resurrect – and rejuvenate – the humble text message.

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨