Why SMS in Africa?

Erik Hersman recently tweeted “I’d like to hear more on whether we should build SMS or internet services in Africa?”  This had the serendipitous effect of breaking a bit of a blogger’s block for me.
I think most would agree that the answer is not either/or but a mix of the two.  That being the case, it it worth unpacking the merits of either option.  I’ve written previously about why IP-based infrastructure in Africa is essential to break down the walled-garden environments that have been established by mobile operators.  And though it’s good to have a vision of what communication infrastructure should look like, it is equally important to recognise what exists. Here are five reasons why I think SMS will remain important for some time:

  1. Familiarity of Experience:  An important reason for continuing to bet on SMS is the comprehensive familiarity of experience that it enjoys.  Everyone understands how SMS works.  It works pretty much the same on every phone.  SMS is a consistent user experience.  Contrast this with designing something even as simple as a USSD app and you find that individual phone design (both physical and OS) interrupts that familiarity of experience.
  2. Always On:  SMS is always on. You never have to worry about whether you’ve signed in or not.  Or whether it is taking up memory in your phone that is slowing everything else down or worse that it has completely taken over your user interface while in operation. You can rely on SMS to work as long as your phone is on.
  3. Already secure:  SMS is directly linked to your phone number which  provides a level of identification and transaction security.  This makes monetising transactions a whole lot easier.  This brings up a side issue for me as to why phone numbers aren’t as personal, universal, and operator-independent as email addresses but I’ll save that for another post.
  4. 160 chars is a killer app:  What we’ve learned from Twitter is that 160/140 characters is enough space to be valuable to everyone no matter how fast their Internet connection is.  SMS is the same.  There is room for loads of innovation with SMS alone, if only it were priced appropriately.   If SMS cost what it should cost i.e. just a tiny bit more than nothing, then ANY mobile can be an affordable, viable bridge to the Internet.
  5. Network Effects:  The biggest reason of all to carry on investing in SMS-based app development is the massive network effects that SMS enjoys.  Everyone uses SMS and is reachable via SMS.  In order for an IP-based service to be meaningful, it has to reach a critical mass of users.  MXit has achieved this in South Africa through a massive take-up among the teen population but I don’t believe this is a generalizable example across the continent, largely because MXit is not a very open platform for developers.  For an app to become popular a significant number of the people close to you have to be using it too.  It may be that Google’s Android environment does that.  Microsoft are also trying to solve that problem with their OneApp solution (Mibli in South Africa).  One the other hand, the soaring popularity of Facebook on mobiles may lead to it evolving as a generic platform.  Certainly, the first platform to establish itself as a popular consistent sign-on and open application development environment will be a game changer.