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Text messaging (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

I'm a dedicated viewer of the American Idol television show. In a case you've been in cave the last five months let me explain briefly: On the show contestants from around the country compete in a singing competition to get a multi-million dollar recording contract. Every week the audience votes, and the lowest vote getter leaves, until, by the final show, only one contestant remains standing. The by-product of all this, of course, is the highest-rated TV show of the season.

In that show I've seen the future-- not of Pop Music, but the future of American cell phones. You see, viewers vote by calling a toll-free number, or by sending a "text" message with a cell phone. In that text messaging lies the future.

U.S. companies are trying to get Americans into the habit of using text messaging. AT&T tied in heavily with American Idol to get our fingers working: Viewers sent a record 13.5 million text messages during its five-month run. A drop in the bucket, though, compared to that 30 billion a month sent by Europeans.

U.S. wireless companies hope to duplicate the success of their European counterparts - although one European telecom executive theorized that text messaging will never become popular in the U.S. He thought that Americans have eaten "too many hamburgers" and thus have "fingers too fat" to type the text.

Still, text messaging represents a cash cow to cell phone companies. For them that age-old aphorism "talk is cheap" needs to be amended with "text is cheaper." One trade journal reports that text messages have a profit margin of 95%. In fact, the UK cell phone giant Vodaphone gets 20% of its revenues from text messaging.

The cheapness of text messages lies in what's called, in engineering parlance, its asychronous nature. That means that the sender and receiver don't need to communicate simultaneously, unlike voice calls which demand instantaneous transmission. The telecoms present text messaging as the latest high tech add-on, although it only requires old technology: It runs just fine on the current cell phone infrastructure. They nestle the text messages in small bits and pieces right between the technically more demanding voice calls.

The cellular companies would very much like us to be at the billion message a month level because they want us in the habit of using our cell phones for more than talking. They're building higher-capacity networks that allow cell phones to work as live picture phones, able to show video and to download music.

What's next, though, after this explosion of service? What follows every advance in communications: SPAM - annoying ads will now go mobile and be with us every step of the day!

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises