Is SMS still relevant? (video)


We all have the ability to send text messages to one another, but today the manner in which we do so varies greatly. What methods are available, and what are the benefits of going back to “the oldest in the book”?

SMS in its current form was born back in 1985 with the GSM series of standards. Essentially, the SMS standard enabled GSM customers to send messages of up to 160 characters to each other via the wireless network.

On this episode of the Pocketnow Power User we’ll find out if SMS is still relevant.

Why 160 characters?

GSM was designed for voice communications, and routing those calls efficiently. Since it’s a digital standard, when you speak, your analog voice is converted into a digital signal, and stuffed into packets. These packets are then sent from your phone to the cell tower, then across the cellular network. There are other kinds of packets that are sent across the network as well, including some to help your phone and the towers communicate with each other. As luck would have it, there’s some extra space at the end of these packets, and we can’t have anything go to waste, right?

This “extra space” is just enough to cram in some extra information — like text!

Due to the space constraints, it was necessary to limit the length of the messages to 128 bytes. By using a special alphabet consisting of 7-bit characters (instead of the more traditional 8-bit characters), the length of the messages was increased to 160 characters for many languages.

Some languages require 8 bits to represent their alphabet, so in those cases texts are limited to 140 characters. Other languages require 16 bits for their alphabet, limiting them to just 70 characters per message.

That sure seems like a lot of complications just to send some very short messages! Now that we have Internet connections on our phones, are SMS text messages still worth it?

Is SMS still relevant?

Alex S. sent this question in to the Pocketnow Weekly Podcast, but we thought we’d answer it here.

My question came to me the other day when my friend texted me, and later got mad for me not replying, as I was using facebook messenger and google hangouts that day. The question I have for you guys is, is sms still relevant? its tedious using the service from our carriers when these other services exist. should sms just go away in favour for these other services? sounds terrible, but I for one would think its a way better option. Thanks, Alex S. (sic)


I personally use Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, Twitter, Gmail, and Exchange email to keep in touch with others — in addition to Google Voice for my text and voice messaging needs. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks, but none of what I use is really SMS. (Google Voice uses an Internet gateway through which it sends and receives text messages.)

Why use texts?

Unlike Internet data, which is an add-on service, SMS piggybacks on top the underlying protocol that your phone uses to identify itself to cell towers — and vice versa. Even when your phone has “no bars” it may still be talking with the closest cell tower, and deciding that the signal strength isn’t high enough to get a voice call or data signals through. However, that little bit of communication would have been enough to send a text message.

In the case of emergency use, SMS can be very useful for summoning help. For that reason alone, SMS is still very much relevant.

Since all cellular phones can use SMS to talk to one another, texting is the lowest common denominator and all but guarantees your ability to communicate with another phone user — all you need is their number.

Although I prefer to use other methods of communication, I’m glad that SMS is still there. And, as with all types of emergency communication, if you don’t keep in practice, you won’t be able to use it when you really need it.

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy". By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video. Read more about Joe Levi here.