SMS(ing)

In the time of increasing interaction between human and machines, more than any thing technologies are bringing sweeping changes to how people communicate and share information. Just as email, instant messaging, Usenet and Weblogs are distributing information on the Internet; mobile phone text messaging, also known as SMS, short for Short Messaging Service, has become one of favourite pastimes for youth and useful utility to the mobile many.

Seamlessly, SMS has become one of the mainstream trends and an integral part of mobile lifestyle in our otherwise low tech environment. Young and old alike are seen deeply concentrating on mobile phone screens and punching every where: in streets, shopping malls, mosques, buses, collage dormitories, class rooms and on dining table or while watching thrilling cricket matches. One college student I spoke to described leaving home without mobile phone, letting it fall in the hands of someone else or allowing the prepaid card balance exhaust as new anxieties. And “there is a great peer pressure to join the SMS crowd,” says Nazish Noor. That is not what SMS was originally meant for.

When SMS was launched in 1992 as part of the GSM (Global System for Mobile) Phase 1 protocol, it was considered as a low volume, low yield service primarily for business use. But, the technology has been rapidly adopted by societies, and its usage has exploded worldwide. Now billions of fun, greeting, reminding, alerting, and business messages are exchanged every day. No one imagined this till it has happened. Now this trend is upon us all over.

What is more, proud owners of mobile phones with inbuilt camera do not send simple SMS messages. Instead, they write down their message on a piece of paper, take a photo of it and send it as a picture message. SMS lets users do a lot more. Well beyond simple person to person messaging, SMS is being used to download ring tones, animated graphics and logos, getting, news headlines and Quranic verses, notification of new emails and faxes, and much more. In more tech savvy world, businesses are using it to send out virus warnings, advertising, bulletins, stock quotes and news headlines.

Text fever is exponentially rising with rapid expansion in numbers and growing innovations in the design and functions of mobile phone instruments — most handsets in use allow initiation of text message. t may vary a little from handset to handset but is fairly simple. Users can go to phone’s messages menu, type by pressing key 2 once for A, twice for B, three times for C and so on till the hit Send button. The recipient on the other end, anywhere in the world with suitable mobile phone, hears a tone and sees an envelope symbol on the display screen indicating that new message is waiting to be read when ever convenient. Press a couple of more buttons and read the message within seconds.

Messaging some time called texting can be taxing due to typing on a narrow numeric keypad. The word is out that a 12-number keypad to make typing easier has been invented and may be available in local market soon.

The current SMS format allows for 160 characters in a message in the Roman alphabet (including punctuation, numerals and special characters), and 70 characters in a message in other pictographic alphabets of ancient languages, after which the message is truncated. This has helped users to invent a new language – mix of abbreviation and shorthand now millions of people are reading, writing and understanding very well. Some familiar abbreviations have come from instant messaging on the Internet and text messaging has also created some of its own unique usage and set of text phrases and rules. In the SMS world, youths often use an abbreviated language to reduce the time and effort to type a message. There are over 1000 recognized abbreviations. Genie has already launched SMS DXNRE dictionary followed by another one titled the Little Book of TXT by a phone a manufacturing company and a special SMS index has been added in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Mobile messaging is usually text mixed with smileys and face characters like (;_;) (unhappiness) or m(__)m (modesty). Some of the icons are usually pre-installed on mobile phones these days.

Who needs more space? Many users have evolved their own ‘mutual’ language that is all together new. Some time a single alphabet can convey powerfully. “The 160 character provides a lot of writing space, especially when you know what you want to say and to whom. It is short but sweet (and cool),” says one avid texter.

In Pakistan, the mobile phone has grown exponentially. There are six mobile service providers serving the growing demand of the consumers now. The cost of sending SMS messages varies from rupees 1.50 to 5.00 (for messaging overseas) depending upon the service being used. One of the newer service providers has offered free SMS. This has given yet another boost to the use of cell phones.

Like everywhere else, youth is the natural market for SMS. Ever one who can afford carries mobile phone. But it is no longer the preserve of teenagers (or only for techie or geeky types) as every one seems to be embracing the convenient technology. Parallel to the trend in more developed western world, eager local corporate sector is quick to capitalise on the possibilities of the new technology, coupled with an increase in the ranks of a fashion elite ever keen to refine its yuppie airs. SMS is continuing to rise in popularity and diversity and is bridging ICT gape in its own way. Locally text messages are replacing greeting cards. SMS is being used to locate people in crowds and to tell and ask locations or “to exchange fun remarks while sitting in the same class room,” says a Dr. Sonia Rehman.

The key message is that the future of text messaging as a mass communication lies in its use rather than in technical invention. So SMS is, in effect, preparing mobile phones users to see their mobile phones as much more than just things to speak on.

While most text messages are delivered within a few seconds, some may take more time and yet some other may never reach the destination and get lost in cyberspace. The first dumping ground is the hardware in every mobile network that co-ordinates the sending of text messages – the SMS Centre. The second choke point is the part of the mobile phone spectrum over which the messages travel. Finally, there are the buffers, waiting rooms essentially, on the base stations that make up a mobile network. That does not stop people sending SMS messages.

Are you a part of the crowd yet? Every one else is.


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