Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Why SMS?

Now that I've been living in Saigon for a few months, I've come to love the local custom of 'texting' or sending SMS messages between mobile phones. I almost never did this back in the US. Here in Vietnam it's more common to text someone than to call them. So why do folks use texting here?

Cost: It's cheaper to send an SMS message than to make a call. I checked yesterday and the cost to send an SMS from my prepaid Mobifone is 350 VND, about $0.02. Like voice calls here, text messages are charged to the sender, not the receiver.

Multi-tasking: When you get a text you don't have to respond right away. If you're busy, you can wait until you have a few moments to respond. You can also think about your response a bit more. When you get a voice call you have to immediately stop what you're doing and concentrate on the conversation. If you're driving your motorbike, smoking a cigarette, drinking a coffee, and talking on your phone all at the same time, (I've seen this) not only is it dangerous but you're probably not thinking clearly about the conversation either. Say you're trying to set up a meeting. It's a good bet that when you're asked about your schedule tomorrow morning, you may easily forget about the dentist appointment on your calendar and schedule the meeting on top of it. If you had an SMS you could take your time, check your schedule, and respond with an answer that you know is correct.

Clarity: While texting has it's own unique list of perils, it's great for getting addresses or phone numbers correct. There is an added bonus in Vietnam, where you may not be able to pronounce the address but you can show the taxi driver the SMS and he can read the address directly.

Ubiquity: Here everyone carries their cell phones with them. Back home most people are pretty connected to their email, especially those with a blackberry addiction. Think of the advantage of a blackberry without the cost. Sure, it's more difficult to type on a phone, but you would be surprised how quickly you adapt. Most phones have some form of autocomplete these days, so with a little practice you can whip out those witty texts in no time.

Avoidance: It's a great way to leave information for someone without having to actually talk to them. I know people that purposely try to get someone's voicemail so they can minimize their interaction with that person. Texting has the same advantages of minimal interaction. It's bad taste to break up with someone by texting them, but I'm sure it happens all the time.

What's missing, it seems to me, is a way to get more information via SMS. Google has an SMS interface in the US which is very limited. I think this idea could be pushed much further. Twitter and Jaiku (now a Google company) allow you to SMS your updates and receive updates from your buddies. That's an interesting twist. I have a feeling there is room for more innovation along these lines, particularly in countries like Vietnam where voice calls are comparatively rare.