by Larry Magid
This post fist appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
Last week text messaging celebrated its 20th anniversary. It was on December 3, 1992 that British engineer Neil Papworth said “Merry Christmas” to a Vodaphone employee via SMS (short message service).
Now, “texting” is the preferred method of communications for a great many people, especially teens who, according to Pew Research Center, prefer text messaging to all other forms of communications
But recent data suggest that text messaging may have peaked. In Sweden, where text messaging has long been popular among adults as well as teens, the number of messages has declined during the first half of 2012 from 9.2 billion to 8.1 billion. There are similar declines in the United States and the United Kingdom.
In its place, people are using alternative messaging systems, including services like Kik and Whatsapp that use the Internet instead of the carriers’ SMS systems. With these services, users avoid having to pay carrier text messaging fees and have a wider choice of devices, including tablets, the iPod touch and — in some cases — PCs. Google’s free Google Voice service allows you to send and receive text messages via the Web or through a smartphone app using your phone’s data plan instead of via the SMS system.
Last week Facebook jumped on the SMS bandwagon with a new Android app that will initially be available only in India, Argentina, Australia, Argentina, Indonesia, South Africa and Venezuela. Facebook’s new Messenger mobile app lets users send messages to friends via SMS for free through their data plan whether or not the friend is using the app and even if their friends don’t have a smartphone. An old-fashioned “feature phone” will do.
What’s particularly interesting about this new product is that users don’t need a Facebook account. You don’t even need an email address. Instead, you can sign up with a phone number. This is an important point for many people in the developing world who have phones but no access to a computer. And the service dovetails nicely with another Facebook product, “Facebook for Every Phone,” that the company rolled out last summer. That app, which works with more than 2,500 feature phones, allows users to access their friends’ News Feed, their Inbox and even to view and share photos and find friends from their phone’s contacts.
Facebook, which already has more than a billion users worldwide, is anxious to expand its reach even further. When I was in Kenya last year, I learned that people in that country can access Facebook from their mobile devices without having to pay data charges. Most Kenyans have pay as you go plans that require them to pay for data by the megabyte, so being able to “reverse the charges” when it comes to data enables them to participate in what would otherwise be a cost-prohibitive service.
The roll out of this messenger product is part of Facebook’s commitment to mobile. In its third quarter earnings release in October, Facebook disclosed that 604 million “monthly active users” were accessing the service via mobile devices, a 61 percent increase over the previous year. About 14 percent of Facebook’s third quarter income (about $150 million) came from mobile.
The company recently revamped its iOS and Android apps, and just last week unveiled a new photo sync service that automatically uploads photos from a smartphone to a private holding area that users can access via the web. The service is off by default, but once you enable it in the app, any photo you take via the Facebook app (plus the last 20, you’ve already taken) is automatically synchronized to your account.
But don’t worry about accidentally posting embarrassing photos. Even though the photos are synced, they are invisible to all but yourself until you decide to share them. If you do share them, you can select the audience, which can range from the “public” to friends of friend, friends only, specific friends or lists or even “only me.”
Despite these safeguards, some privacy advocates worry that it will vastly increase Facebook’s access to photos of users and their friends, which often contain location information.
There are also concerns that Facebook could use facial recognition technology to identify people in the pictures, even if users don’t tag them with the names of their friends. Facebook has policies in place to safeguard this data, but there is always the possibility it can be misused in the future either by the company, by governments or by hackers.
Given the vast amounts of other information stored about us by banks, insurance companies, airlines, phone companies, governments and other institutions, I’m not especially concerned about this. But it’s one more aspect of “big data” that consumers and policies makers need to think about as we move forward.