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The world loves WhatsApp and other texting apps. Americans are chatting in their own bubble.
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My fellow Americans, we are weird.
The United States is one of the few big countries where SMS, the texting technology with origins in the 1980s, remains a standard way to chat.
In many other countries, text messaging happens over a smartphone app like WhatsApp from Meta, the company formerly called Facebook. WeChat is popular in China, and Line in Japan. Those messages travel over the internet rather than over phone lines like SMS texts.
America’s SMS exceptionalism has pros and cons. The biggest benefits of SMS are that it works on almost any phone, and we’re not locked into one company’s communications world. The drag is that SMS has security flaws, and it lacks features of modern chat apps like notifications that your friend has read your message, or the ability to start a video call from a text.
The continued prevalence of SMS in the U.S. is a reminder that the most resilient technologies aren’t necessarily the best ones. It’s also another way that America’s smartphone habits are unlike the rest of the world’s in ways that can be helpful but can also hold us back.
I know that many Americans use whatever text app is on their phone and don’t think too hard about it. Fine! But let me explain why we should reflect a bit on this communications technology.
If you’re an American with an iPhone, you probably use iMessage. Those messages flow over the internet like what you watch on Netflix — unless you text someone with an Android phone, and then your texts are SMS. Clear as mud? And if you’re texting from an Android phone … it’s complicated, but you’re probably using some flavor of SMS.
The bottom line is that the U.S. uses SMS at a volume that most other countries don’t.
Here’s one example: In 2020, something like one trillion personal and commercial messages traveled in the U.S. by SMS or the companion image technology known as MMS. In Germany, the figure was eight billion, according to an analysis by the mobile research firm Strategy Analytics.
When Germans text, they tend to use WhatsApp, which is also the go-to chat method in India, Britain, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, France and many other countries.
What’s the big deal if America’s texting relies on phone lines? Well, SMS is an old and rickety technology awkwardly crammed into newer ones.
WeChat, WhatsApp, Signal and other modern texting apps often let users see which of their friends are online, send high-definition images and animations, share physical locations with the people they’re texting, and connect with apps directly in chats to send money or do other tasks.
Roughly half of U.S. smartphone owners have iPhones and live in this modern chat world, unless they communicate with Android phone users. SMS handles most of the functions above with difficulty.
Maybe basic texts are just fine in many cases, but SMS also has security limitations. In new TV commercials, WhatsApp stresses that SMS is vulnerable to snoops or criminals reading our messages. WhatsApp and similar apps like Signal use a technology that locks down texts from prying eyes. This encryption technology draws criticism because it also hides messages from law enforcement.
I want to stick up, a little, for the simple beauty of SMS. You can’t use WhatsApp to text your friend who uses iMessage, but SMS is universal. And it makes me feel uneasy to suggest that everyone should use WhatsApp and make one Big Tech company the gateway to all of our digital communications.
I asked Nitesh Patel, the director of wireless media research at Strategy Analytics, if there is a middle ground between America’s reliance on SMS and a corporate app like WhatsApp becoming the digital front door. Patel cited the more updated cousin to SMS known as RCS, or rich communications services. (I know, the jargon is awful.)
RCS is a mess, but it has more modern features than SMS and is pretty secure. Like SMS it is a shared technology that no single company controls. Google has pushed RCS, and it has replaced SMS texting on some Android phones. But Apple will most likely never go along with it, which means that RCS will never be a universal texting technology.
The good news about America’s texting status quo is that it’s one of the few areas of technology in which a corporate giant isn’t dominating our choices. Now we just need to get SMS to be a bit cooler.
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