SMS messaging turned 20 years old this week, but it feels even older. It's decrepit and wildly overpriced, and it's too limited to be our long-term texting solution.
But all the up and comers trying to replace it? They've got plenty of problems of their own, and the transition to iMessage, Facebook Chat, or whatever wins out is going to be a huge pain in everyone's arse.
For all of SMS's manifold faults, it still has that one unmatchable advantage of absolute cross-platform adoption. And that's the single biggest problem facing the current heirs to the SMS throne. It's going to be an incredible, frustrating chore trying to replicate what SMS managed to do. It's already frustrating watching people try.
Take Apple's sorta-dumpy iMessage service. It's supposed to be a newjack BlackBerry Messenger, which itself was (and kind of remains) the best, most rock-solid SMS alternative (assuming you own a BlackBerry). The iPhone has scored a similar smartphone hegemony to the old BlackBerry empire, so it can almost get away with this intra-device communication. But it's not just a matter of having enough users to populate its service; you also have to make it work. iMessage has some perks, like embeddable images and gifs and read receipts, but it's also faced a massive amount of downtime, as well as some sort of absurd security holes.
Or look at Google Voice's text message treatment, which is less divergent than iMessage, but actually more ambitious. Google Voice lets you use a phone number you get from Google (and can associate with your own phone number) to send, receive and view SMS text messages from your phone, or from your browser. Sending and receiving texts from any computer is awesome, and has inspired a number of similar services (iMessage lets you do this from Macs). Google Voice gets a lot right, but it just requires too much effort and too many workarounds to ever be something that works seamlessly on every single phone. And it's only available in the US, which is annoying on its own.
And then there's Facebook, which took a tiny step SMS-related step today, with an update to its already-good Messenger app on Android. Facebook already lets you blend your SMS messages and Facebook chat into one hub. Now it lets you log in without a Facebook account (even though you probably have a Facebook account). It's not available in the US, but it's where Facebook chat is heading.
Facebook, if you squint hard enough, looks like the one service with enough chops to replace SMS as we know it. Nearly everyone has a Facebook account, and Facebook is on every platform. It's even made inroads into dumbphone support, with a whole text-only version for developing nations. So that's the sell: Chat with your Facebook friends on your phone, and even better if you can eventually route it through your computer's browser. If anyone can pull this off, it's Facebook.
But even if Facebook does succeed, it still wouldn't be totally ideal. Exclusive, non-cross-platform chat and message standards are hugely frustrating, even if they're a half-decent upgrade. They always seem like just a checkmark on a marketing brochure. At best, they're needlessly exclusive, like iMessage. At worst, a laughable ghost town, like Windows Phone's Rooms. Facebook making an awesome SMS and chat service would leave out a ton of people who rely on other message systems, like Google Talk, AIM, and even Messenger or Yahoo. What we really need is for carriers and platform-makers to get over themselves and just agree on one standard. Good luck with that.
Windows Phone realised that more than a year ago. Kind of. It integrated SMS and Facebook Chat before even Facebook did. But then Facebook did it better. And now WIndows Phone is shying away from taking on more chat partners. Android, meanwhile, somehow doesn't even sync up your Google Talk and SMS, and iPhone is as locked down as anyone.
It's almost impossible to create a new standard everyone can agree on in the best circumstances; much more so in as hotly contested an arena as mobile. Even cross-platform options like Facebook or Google Talk — or group variations like GroupMe — suffer from the modern expectation to not just be able to talk to everyone, but to be able to do it from one place. Which is a problem, because a lot of times the people making operating systems explicitly want to freeze out competitors' chat platforms, like Microsoft with Google Talk.
It's possible today through add-ons or plug-ins or third-party apps, to mostly hack your way to text message bliss. But good luck explaining how to do that to your parents. That's why SMS isn't going anywhere any time soon; it's awful in so many ways, but at least it's something we all agree on. If it does end up getting replaced, it'll have to be by something as brutally simple as it is, and has always been.
All that adds up to a mess of disagreement and redundancy — a cell tower of Babel, more or less. So for now, the future of text messaging is a just a room full of interesting folks, refusing to talk to one another.