SMS texting in deep decline in UK as mobile message apps take over

Mobile users move on

The SMS text message came to define the start of the mobile era but now the mobile era is moving on. New OFCOM figures show the numbers being sent across UK mobile networks dropped sharply during 2013.

Buried inside Deloitte's TMT Predictions Report 2014, the UK telecom regulator's numbers report that a total of 145 billion made their way between mobile devices during the last year, down around 7 billion from 2012.

Although that sounds like a modest 4.6 percent drop that is still a jolt for a once-mighty form of communication that as recently as 2010 to 2011 recorded a growth rate of 18 percent.

It is not (as some stories have claimed) the first ever fall in UK text volumes; that happened around the last quarter of 2011, as reported a year later in stories suggesting social media as a possible cause. But if the quarterly figures put out by OFCOM for 2012 showed smallish but consistent quarterly drops, the new numbers used by Deloitte have that accelerating.

Projecting ahead, Deloitte predicts that SMS volumes will now drop to around 140 billion for 2014, which might turn out to be generous.

If social media halted the SMS juggernaut it is mobile instant messaging (MIM) that is now eating it. Once marooned inside small PC applications, this has migrated to mobile apps such as WhatsApp, Viber and Skype that don't charge for communication.

No amount of SMS bundling by mobile networks will stop their rise.

Deloitte predicts that globally in 2014 MIM messaging will carry twice as many messages as SMS, which still leaves text messaging generating $100 billion (£61 billion) in revenues, about 50 times that for MIM. SMS might no longer be king and queen but it still makes huge amounts of money.

"We expect SMS to continue to generate significantly greater revenues than MIM even as far out as 2018, by which point global SMS revenues are expected to have started falling," said Deloitte.

"We would also expect MIM services on mobile phones to continue to substitute not just for SMS, but all other forms of communication, from e-mail to phone calls."

MIM will also therefore start to hit phone volumes and even emails so SMS won't be the only loser. If that's correct, the change from SMS, phone and mobile email isn't simply about the changing habits of smartphone and tablet owners.

This preference also shifts the communications axis from one controlled by mobile operators to one controlled by software and Internet firms. Mobile firms will hope that the rise in 4G traffic will compensate for that but there's not getting away from the fact it reinforces that they are dumb (but profitable) pipes first and foremost.

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