Lagging U.S. SMS Adoption

Business 2.0 Magazine is featuring a rather interesting article on why Americans aren’t picking up text messaging. All in all, the article, written by Paul Kedrosky, the executive director of UCSD’s Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Advancement, gives a pretty simple summary of what’s affecting the lack of adoption and it included some absolutely excellent examples of inventive SMS usage that are going on today, but I felt like he glossed over some pretty big issues related to SMS adoption and cultural influences. My main nitpick about this is that cultural attitudes, familial living situations and economics go a long way to explaining why SMS has received vastly differing levels of adoption and that those same attributes may mean that text messaging in the U.S., which is rapidly increasing, will never match that in some other countries. I’m placing my comments on this in the main body of the post, though, so I don’t bore all you folks out there just out looking for some neat SMS ideas (there’s a special piece of bizarre SMS trivia located at the very bottom, though, so why don’t you read it all anyway?).

Aside from that one little nitpick, though, I loved the article. Kedrosky’s examples of SMS usage sound very cool and potentially very catchy within the United States, even with the cultural differences mentioned above (and below).

Advertising folks, pay attention. Some pretty interesting ideas are contained within the next three paragraphs:

What kinds of services succeed overseas? The bulk of SMS traffic is simple messaging between friends, which doesn’t present many opportunities for entrepreneurs. But advertising and interactive applications beckon.

Think American Idol-style text-message voting on steroids. For example, in cell-phone-swamped Finland, there are popular TV programs where you can send texts that scroll onto the screen in a live chat, and others where you direct a character via SMS.

While SMS-driven TV programs may not thrive to the same degree in the United States, we could well see texting in live sports. Exponentia, a startup in Vancouver, British Columbia, has a service that allows Canadians to predict the next play by SMS in everything from golf to hockey.

Cool. I dig the idea that some random, silly message I come up with could pop up while I’m watching a program on T.V. and I’d be much more likely to tune in if I could see what other bizarre junk people are texting to the program. That’s exactly the type of thing that would make me go, “Ooooh! Shiny! Pretty!” and then drool all over myself.

Read on for my comments.

Kedrosky does state that the adoption of text messaging is tied to economic and cultural factors and he also makes a very brief mention that, overseas, people tend to own fewer personal computers. Both of these are true, but these relatively unmentioned cultural differences have major implications for SMS adoption in the United States.

In Japan, the traditional family unit includes extended family members living in small spaces with paper-thin walls. Land lines are expensive to install and in a space like that even cell phone conversations can be overheard. Text messaging provides an excellent way around the problem of both overheard conversations. Certainly this isn’t the only reason for SMS adoption, but this, coupled with a deluge of other cultural and economic factors that affect SMS adoption in other countries, certainly makes it a very real possibility that text messaging will never acquire the same popularity in the United States that it has in other places.

This isn’t to say that the rate of text messagers isn’t growing fast (it is) or that it’s not a valuable medium to convey brand messages with (it is), but using the same models as other countries to predict how behavior will be adopted in the United States is dangerous (Vegemite and a host of other similar spreads have become popular in other countries, but for some reason the United States has just caught on to their yeasty goodness. Go figure.).

Howard Rheingold wrote an excellent book on the subject of cell phone usage and its cultural causes and effects called “Smart Mobs,” and runs a blog under the same name. I fully recommend that anyone interested in the subject check out both.

Random SMS Trivia: In Japan, the large groups of young people proficient at sending text messages are referred to as “oyayubizoku,” which translates to “the thumb tribe.”