The Evolution of Messaging

With texting approaching thirty and last year’s sunset of AOL’s instant messaging AIM, we take a look back at the evolution of messaging to see how new kid on the block RCS stacks up to SMS, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

SMS – The Message King (1992-Present Day)

From the first SMS sent in December 1992 wishing a Merry Christmas, to the most widely-used data application, a lot changed for the role of SMS in our lives. But the open and read rates have always remained strong. 98% are opened and nine out of 10 are opened in the first three seconds alone.

The unique 160-character limit wasn’t an arbitrary figure plucked out of thin air. It was chosen based on the careful analysis of postcards and Telex messages by SMS co-creator Friedhelm Hillebrand. Hillebrand argued that this was sufficient to express most messages succinctly. He wasn’t wrong. Mark Twain once wrote that he didn’t have time to write a short letter, so he wrote a long one. When restraint meets creativity, there is great power in this form of communication.

A2P messaging has infinite amount of uses. Businesses can be almost certain that their customers have read and consumed the material, simply by the act of opening the message (which we know the overwhelming majority are doing). So long as the text is written clearly, a simple glance is enough to digest the information at that scale. Businesses that leverage SMS can be sure customers are not only getting the message, but that they have actually given their attention to it. This puts them at a huge advantage.

But of course, SMS has its limits. With no rich functionality, it’s acting as the envelope to more exciting content with the form of external links. Plus, compared to other messaging channels today, SMS offers few useful features like website preview, read receipts or interactive buttons. So what came next in the evolution of messaging?

MMS – The Promise Unfulfilled (2002- Present Day)

When you describe RCS to someone in layman’s terms (SMS, but with rich communication’), you would forgive them for bringing up the neglected stepchild of the messaging world, Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS). Built on top of SMS, MMS allows users to send up to forty seconds of video, images, or even audio. But in addition to a plague of technical adoption issues, MMS failed to reach the scale of SMS. This was largely because its functionality beyond sending or receiving rich content was (and continues to be) non-existent. That, and by the time the technical barriers that first halted it began to crumble, there were by then many other services that could do the same thing. Only they could do it with much more ease. And at a fraction of the cost.

IM – The Age of Instant (1997-2012)

Instant Messaging (IM) can be traced back to the sixties. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s with the familiar ping of AOL’s AIM, or Microsoft’s MSN that IM really took off. IM on desktop and laptop devices became the norm in a fast-paced modern world that even email struggled to keep up with. It featured the use of emojis to better express users, and the ability to communicate in real-time in a way that more closely mimicked real-life conversation. Combined with the dawn of group chats, IM set a new standard for informality in messaging that would ripple throughout all other channels.

IM also saw the advent of functionality outside of simply chatting. For example, users could send files, play games, call, or video chat. IM even started to support advertising. It was also the first time that you could see whether a user was online and available to chat.

Ironically, while native apps looked to services like MSN Messenger for a taste of what their own platforms could achieve, untethered by a desk, and more easily adopted, mobile apps would eventually bleed traditional IM dry. Five years after the 1st generation of iPhone, MSN Messenger signed off for the last time.

OTT – The Mobile Movement (2011- Present Day)

Smartphone adoption grew at twice the rate of internet adoption. It grew at four times the rate of television ownership. Seemingly overnight, consumers grew a 24-hour window to the world that would remain in their hands, in their pockets, by the side of their beds as they slept. Unlike the days of IM, where users would sign in and hope their friends were signed in too, virtual chatting was no longer something prearranged or attached to an ethernet cable. It arrived, instantaneously on your phone without warning. Wherever you were. And it provided the concept of valuable interruption to our culture.

Facebook Messenger separated itself from its mother app in 2011, and set sail into the same waters WhatsApp had two years earlier. Today they each have over 1 billion users. They feature functionality as fun, useful and diverse as GIF keyboards, transferring payment, sending voice messages or presenting users with rich card carousels. At their launch, users also liked that the services were essentially free compared to SMS if used over Wi-Fi. This continues to be the case for many.

OTT apps have huge potential in the world of business messaging. This is because of their ability to both reach customers in an entertaining and informal way, and be reached, anytime, anywhere, at the click of a very convenient button. But with each OTT messaging app creating its own rules around marketing or even operational communications sent by business, it can be a tricky area to navigate when it comes to A2P. If only there was a new universal standard of rich messaging that is only governed by regional message regulations instead of a myriad of private companies…

RCS – The Prodigal Son (2008 2011 2018-???)

This time around seems to be the third time lucky for RCS. With the vast improvement in mobile internet coverage and growing OTT user base, it’s a now or never moment. Fortunately, it’s one that Google, carriers and OEMs have come together for, to offer users a fluid and superior service, and businesses a never-seen-before opportunity for communication. From images, to video, location sharing, smart-buttons, and more, the possibilities for RCS are endless. And yet, there will be no learning curve when it comes to adoption. SMS and OTT apps have primed consumers for over a decade. Think of RCS as the 2nd generation of standard handset messaging. It’s ready to shed its archaic connotations, but not lose any of its unique advantages.

See also: What can you do with RCS?