It’s a wedding scene. The ceremony has just ended, the happy couple are lost in each other’s embrace, friends and family are gathered around. In the foreground of the picture stands a crotchety-looking old woman, presumably a grandmother, aunt, or one of those busybodies that shows up every time the church doors open. She has sent a text message: “TWO YRS MAX,” she predicts.

There are other scenes — on a subway, seated on either side of an overweight commuter, a preppy young woman sends a text message to the wireless phone of a preppy young man: “HE STINX,” she observes.

This is the world of text message as imagined by the minds at Microcell, who are using the scenarios I have described on subway posters for the Fido Tex service. Though the English language may be massacred in these ads, the message comes through loud and clear: short text messaging is a great way to spread nasty gossip.

Microcell isn’t alone. New York-based Upoc, for example, is already attracting attention for some of the mobile messaging groups it has established, particularly “Celebrity Sightings.” This is a group for those lucky souls who happen to spot Penelope Cruz (sans Tom Cruise, one hopes), for example, walking down the street, or for teenage girls who, after seeing Josh Hartnett working out at the gym, want to translate their collective drool into a digital format. Technology rocks!

Laughable as it seems, this kind of service represents the great white hope for wireless firms who want to create the kind of popularity for short message services (SMS) in the United States that the industry has already experienced in Japan. There appears to a widespread belief, based on what many carriers said at Communications 2001 in Toronto this week, that data services like SMS will bring the market out of the gutter and fuel unlimited new sources of revenue.

If I had a cell phone equipped with SMS service, I might send some of them the following thought: WHT R U THNKNG? Companies like Upoc have already signed deals with movie and recording studios to broadcast SMS promotions on new releases to cell phone users. The idea reminds me of the outrage among many of my friends who picked up their home telephone recently, only to find the voice of ex-Entertainment Tonight gadfly Liza Gibbons pitching for a Toronto radio station.

The real challenge, at least in the United States, is the lack of network interoperability that limits SMS transmissions. Communications 2001 will best be remembered for the historic agreement between Bell, Telus, Rogers AT&T and Microcell to bring interoperability to Canada. That being said, it’s hard to imagine services like Celebrity Sightings generating much interest up here (who are you going to spot? Anne Murray? Martin Short?).

More to the point, is there nothing better we can do with SMS than offer young people the ability to electronically pass notes in class? There is at least one possibility with the Enhanced 911 (E911) location service, for which Bell Mobility is conducting trials now. Though there were some touching stories about the use of Research In Motion’s BlackBerry pagers by people trapped under the rubble after the Sept. 11 disaster in New York, I don’t necessarily see how text does a better job of voice in communicating emergency information. A big part of emergency services involves the interpersonal skills of the 911 operators who calm people down in the event of a fire, break-in or other catastrophe. Text messages can’t replace that.

SMS is not a killer app in and of itself. We need to see more compelling ways in which the technology can increase productivity among business users, or at least a way to let consumers do something better than they were able to do before SMS was available. Otherwise, the lifespan for this market may be shorter than some of the messages themselves.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Shane Schick
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