Death of a Protocol
By Jonathan Goodyear
The cost of most bandwidth has been trending downward for many years. Video streaming Web sites like YouTube that would have been impossibly expensive to run only a few years ago are now within reach of non-billion-dollar companies (until they get bought by billion-dollar companies, that is).
One noticeable exception to the bandwidth price trend is Short Messaging Service (SMS). Most non-geeks know it by its more common usage as the protocol for mobile phone text messaging. While most wireless carriers offer unlimited text messaging for under $20 per month, commercial SMS remains relatively expensive (the price per GB is close to $100,000), and may get even more expensive very soon.
So, what is commercial SMS, and why do you care? When you send a text message to your buddy using your mobile phone, you re using personal SMS. When you text a keyword to a short code (a 4, 5, or 6 digit phone number) to vote for an American Idol contestant, you re using commercial SMS. The big difference is that personal SMS has another person at the other end of the line (your buddy s mobile phone). Commercial SMS uses computer programs to respond to incoming text messages, and the potential implications as a communications protocol for mobile applications is why SMS is an important topic to discuss.
Over the past year or so, more and more Web applications have integrated SMS as a means to notify users in near real time, as well as to let users respond to those notifications to provide instructions on how to proceed. Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace use SMS to let you know when someone has contributed to your profile. News sites like CNN can send you a text message when breaking news occurs. Some sites like Twitter allow you to both send messages to (and receive updates from) others in a publish/subscribe model. In fact, SMS is one of the options available to you via the Windows Live Alerts SDK (http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/bb259752.aspx).
Because 90% of text messages are read within one hour while only 50% of e-mails are read within three days it is easy to see how SMS can be a powerful tool to enable your Web applications to keep users updated in a very timely manner. That is, if you can afford it. Typically, when you want to send commercial SMS, you must lease a short code and get approved by each wireless carrier the script for your interactions with it. To minimize the work, most companies utilize the services of an SMS gateway to act as a centralized communications broker with the wireless carriers. As an application provider, you pay a fee for each message you send or receive via SMS through that gateway.
The fees in the United States are typically relatively small, and are reduced if you send messages in volume. Recently, however, Verizon made a bold move and decided to assess a $.03 surcharge on every mobile terminated (MT) text message that flows through its network (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/11/technology/companies/11text.html). This effectively doubles the fee that most application providers pay to send text messages, wreaking havoc with the pricing models of the services (often free) these companies provide. The excuse that Verizon gave for the new surcharge is that they need it to support the infrastructure of the network. However, SMS uses the same infrastructure and radio spectrum as mobile voice calls, and is actually required to notify your mobile phone that a call is coming in. My opinion is that they are just doing it to create a new revenue stream but in doing so, they may end up losing out entirely.
What I mean is that, in response to the news of the new surcharge, many companies are stating that if the surcharge isn t revoked, they will no longer support sending text messages to their users who have Verizon as a mobile carrier. If other wireless carriers follow suit, it could easily tear apart a valuable protocol for communicating with the most common and numerous computers in the world (mobile phones).
I, for one, hope that Verizon backs off of its position; not just because one of my companies is heavily impacted by the decision, but because as a society we are becoming increasingly more mobile. While smart devices like Windows Mobile phones and iPhones are becoming more common, their market penetration is still dwarfed by the average mobile handset that can only send and receive simple text messages using the SMS protocol.
By its very nature, SMS is a difficult protocol to build applications on, because it is stateless but that didn t stop the Internet from growing into one of the de facto platforms for building applications. When more of us have phones that can communicate in a better way, we won t have a need for commercial SMS. We re several years away from that happening, though. Let s hope that we re not left waiting for the world to change.
Jonathan Goodyear is president of ASPSOFT (http:// www.aspsoft.com), an Internet consulting firm based in Orlando, FL. Jonathan is Microsoft Regional Director for Florida, an ASP.NET MVP, a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD), and co-author of ASP.NET 2.0 MVP Hacks (Wrox). Jonathan also is a contributing editor for asp.netPRO. E-mail him at mailto: [email protected] or through his angryCoder eZine at http:// www.angryCoder.com.