Lurking inside every GSM mobile handset sold in the UK is a textcaught on, and will it ever? messaging capability known as SMS (short message service). SMS not only provides the full functionality of a traditional pager, but also has the potential to enable users to receive internet email via their phones.
So why is SMS still virtually unheard of outside seriously technical circles?
Is it a case of the not-invented-here syndrome since GSM is a European, not a US development? Or is it merely a minor utility which only appeals to techno-nerds and niche marketeers?
One person who may be able to answer this is Craig Swallow, business development manager at Hugh Symons Mobile Data, a distributor which has made its mark by specialising in the convergence of the worlds of IT and GSM. Swallow isn't over-enthusiastic about the scope of SMS at the moment. 'It is not off-the-shelf, broadbase stuff at present,' he says. 'What is out there is aimed at delivery drivers, taxi drivers and the like, but there are now several developers trying to make it more accessible.' On a more positive note, he adds: 'Once it starts to take off I think it'll do well, but at the moment the market for it just doesn't exist.'
A more cynical view is taken by John Cunningham, MD of PMC - manufacturer of Pace modems - who remembers his days in the late eighties when the company launched a data-only national network - Cognito. Cunningham maintains there are close parallels between SMS and the still-surviving Cognito. 'They both have the same killer application - aiming at service engineers.'
Cunningham believes neither SMS nor Cognito are destined for greater things because technology has passed them by. 'I've had the same mobile handset for a couple of years,' Cunningham says, 'and it has only ever had two SMS messages on it - one of those was from my own technical support manager.' Cunningham maintains that trying to tap out an SMS message via a GSM handset is too time-consuming. 'The typical GSM handset owner just bangs the buttons and makes calls. They're not going to worry about cost.'
According to Cunningham, SMS has missed the boat. 'It had its opportunity and didn't make it. It doesn't matter how good an SMS application you come up with now, the chance has gone.'
Tim Wickes, MD of rival modem manufacturer Digicorp, took a different stance. He likens SMS to the Video Plus facility on a VCR machine, where users key in numbers from the newspapers to record a TV programme. 'I think I've done it twice. It's the sort of feature you try a couple of times and then forget about. SMS is the same.'
Wickes says he hasn't had an enquiry about his modems' SMS capability for about nine months. By contrast, however, he feels there is a lot of interest in data over GSM which provides more functionality than SMS.
Even SMS' own champions are cautious about its chances of success. A typical example of one software house, which perhaps came to the SMS market too early, is Newbury-based Paragon Software. The company, headed by Colin Calder, had produced a relatively simple SMS package - FoneMail - which was OEMed by Vodafone as well as going through distribution. However, the original offering wasn't a major success, so about 17 months ago, the company switched its efforts to another associated area with a product called FoneBook Plus. 'Eventually, we understood more about the market and realised that less than two per cent of handset owners used their phones for data,' Calder explains. 'The biggest market now is for those using their handsets for voice calls.' Hence, the introduction of FoneBook.
What the FoneBook essentially does is make it easy for the typical user to input names and addresses into the mobile handset's memory. According to Nick Borley, a sales executive at Paragon: 'The engineers designing the actual handsets were putting roughly 20 per cent of their design effort in the phone's address book feature. But, users weren't taking advantage of it. If you have to press a key on the handset three times just to get the letter F, you're going to give up pretty quickly, aren't you?'
In contrast to FoneMail, FoneBook Plus has gone well for Paragon since its US launch in September 1997. When asked why Paragon had attacked the US market before the UK, Calder replied: 'The US is the biggest market in the world for software and we aim to be number one worldwide.' Paragon claims it has invented a new product sub-category - the Personal Information Manager for mobile phones.
Indeed, it appears to be the market leader since there appears to be no comparable rival. Calder claims the key to Paragon's success is the fact it has changed the behaviour of mobile phone users through FoneBook.
Once it has persuaded large numbers of consumers to hook mobile phones up to their PCs, it will be in a position to sell its SMS package - now called FoneNote - as a secondary sale. 'We'll be able to say to users "look, you've got all the gear now, why don't you take a look at this text messaging facility"?'
Paragon's FoneBook product works with Ericsson handsets, and Siemens has done a deal with the company so FoneBook Plus is bundled with its latest mobile phones. Calder claims Paragon should soon be able to announce a similar deal with Sony. So why is FoneBook working where FoneMail didn't?
Calder maintains that before FoneBook came along, US users had been downloading names and addresses into their PDAs - such as the 3Com PalmPilot - and then manually re-keying the numbers in order to dial with their mobile phones. Now, FoneBook enables users to download existing data into their mobile phones. The product also provides tools for importing existing data from popular PIMs such as Lotus Organiser, ACT and Schedule Plus, as well as providing an ability to interwork the Exchange address book with Microsoft Mail or the labelling facility within Microsoft Word 7.
The key to Paragon's success comes from its persuasion of handset manufacturers - which are notorious for guarding their proprietary interfaces - to change their view of serial cable sales. 'We told them their existing model for the serial cable as a strictly data product was wrong,' he says. Paragon has re-positioned the serial as a voice accessory instead. 'Now they can view PC owners as a market opportunity - this is critical.'
One person who is enthusiastic about SMS capabilities is Nick Hunn, product development manager at TDK Grey Cell. Hunn was instrumental in the creation of one of TDK's latest products - GlobalPulse - a software-only solution which provides data over GSM facilities via a serial cable rather than requiring the user to fit a fully specified PC card. 'Our feeling is that SMS has enormous potential,' Hunn says. 'You only have to travel to Scandinavia and you'll see it is already being used for a variety of general messaging services.' Hunn cites the notification of PC-based email messages to the user via GSM as an example.
Asked why he thinks there is such a great contrast with the situation which currently prevails in the UK, Hunn explains that as a nation we are showing little imagination. 'In the UK, it's only being used for the lottery results or for stocks and share prices.' He also blames the fact that, at present, there is no direct link between any UK-based GSM networks and the internet.
Traditionally, the four GSM network operators in the UK block the ability for their customers to send an SMS message to a person on a rival UK network, although they can easily send a message half way round the world to Australia, for example. 'Although that's not such a problem because corporates tend to stick with one GSM network supplier,' Hunn adds.
One way out of this situation is to go onto the internet and access the Web page of an overseas GSM network operator who - often for no charge - will forward the SMS to a UK subscriber.
TDK Grey Cell tackles this problem differently. All four GSM network operators offer standard dial-up modem access to their SMS message centres.
So you can dial into the network and upload an SMS message which is then forwarded to the user.
What TDK has done with the forthcoming release of GlobalPulse - version 1.1 - is provide the facility to dial into those modem accessible SMS message centres via a GSM data call. Obviously, this will cost more than it does to send a standard SMS message in the UK (10p compared to about 20p for a GSM data call), but this does get around the obstacle of SMS messaging to people on other UK GSM networks.
Swallow sums up the general consensus that, at present, the blame lies with the UK's GSM network operators. 'As a service, it's simply not being sold,' he says. What is required is a change in the tariffing for SMS to make it cheaper. Then the killer application - telemetry - would enable SMS to take off.
Motorola Communicate product marketing manager Eric Tomlin reveals that his company has already developed a fully functional GSM handset - no larger than a portable PC's hard disk - which is designed to fit inside vending machines and the like. 'In an ideal world, you can send an SMS message every time the machine runs out of Coca-Cola. But if each call costs 10p, then bang goes the reseller's margin.'
There are signs the UK may follow Scandinavia and Germany in dropping the price of a single SMS call. Until then, packages which enable message headers from internet mail servers to be forwarded to a user's GSM will stay as they are - niche market products.
What is an SMS message?
SMS is a facility which has been built into the standards for GSM mobile telephone networks from the word go. It is the equivalent of a two-way paging facility. You can, for example, receive an SMS safely while driving a vehicle, so a hands-free system becomes unnecessary.
SMS has some powerful facilities. For example, an SMS message can be received while you are talking. And operators like Orange can send SMS messages which instantly update the firmware in your mobile phone. There are even ETSI standards for compressing and concatenating SMS messages to overcome the barrier that a standard SMS message contains only 160 characters.
Part of the problem is that ETSI is a European standards body so few software houses outside Europe are familiar with SMS. However, if GSM 1900 proves popular in Redmond, Washington - the US is about two years behind in introducing digital mobile networks - things might prove very different.
SMS in action
Until last year, Hussmann (Europe) UK had been using a mix of telecoms equipment. The company manufactures and maintains cold stores and refrigeration cabinets for use in supermarkets, but now operates a mobile data and SMS solution over Vodafone's GSM network. Previously, its service engineers have relied on communicating with their local branch using short wave radios, phone cards, cellular phones or even the customer's fixed line phone.
In early 1997, all 250 Hussmann engineers were equipped with Nokia 2110 handsets supplied by Vodafone Corporate. This was followed in mid 1997 by issuing Apple Newtons fitted with Nokia Data PC cards to 130 engineers.
These engineers then began using SMS and data over Vodafone by connecting up the Apple Newton to their handsets. The same facility is now being rolled out to all 250 engineers.
The system begins with Hussmann's Call Centre taking a call from a customer to report a fault. Details are then passed via a FoxPro database engine to the dispatch desk where service engineer availability is checked and the job allocated. The software automatically generates an SMS message which passes via an SMS server over a KiloStream (leased line link) to the Vodafone GSM network, which then forwards the SMS message to the recipient's handset. The engineer receives an audible alert that the SMS has arrived.
The SMS message contains essential details only, such as store name, its location, the reported fault and a contact name and number. At the call centre, confirmation of the engineer's receipt of the SMS is logged. No voice calls are necessary. Once the fault is fixed, the engineer has only to press 'Connect to communications server' and a data call is made via the GSM handset to the call centre. Details of the completed job are then uploaded via GSM, enabling the company to prepare the customer's invoice.
Malcolm Bell, Hussmann MIS manager responsible for all company software development, observes: 'The more we explore the potential for two-way SMS and data communications, the more we find that it works well for our mobile service personnel, and they work well electronically.'
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