Walk down a street in Paris or Madrid these days, and you see them everywhere: teens hunched over their mobile phones, pecking away for minutes at a stretch without ever making a call. With the advent of short messaging system (SMS) services available through Europe's GSM-based networks, mobile text messaging usage has skyrocketed. According to research firm The Yankee Group, in some European countries, more than 60 percent of subscribers regularly use SMS services, contributing about 10 percent of carrier revenues. No wonder wireless carriers are rushing to deliver messaging services in the States.
AT&T, Nextel and VoiceStream Wireless have all introduced two-way messaging services. Meanwhile, handheld vendors from Palm to Microsoft are readying messaging services, following the lead of Research In Motion's BlackBerry PDA.
Sprint's new service is the most ambitious of the lot. Unlike the delayed messaging services of AT&T and others, Sprint PCS offers real-time instant messaging. Its services include AOL Instant Messenger, so you can seamlessly swap messages and use buddy lists with AOL users.
Complications with text input, however, have been an issue in the past. Wireless messaging providers argue that those input problems are partially solved by predictive input technology and the ability to modify canned dialog.
Yet why would you bother messaging if you have a cell phone? In many countries, PC-based Net access is far from universal, but in the States, most people can wait until they get to work or home to send e-mails.
As for the potential popularity of SMS, providers emphasize the advantage of being able to swap messages during meetings and other settings where cell phone interruptions are frowned on. With increasing restrictions on mobile phone use in cars, movie theaters, restaurants and other public places, messaging could find its place. And there's one sure-fire solution to that text-input problem: Soon we'll be able to speak into our voice-recognition-enabled mobile phones to send text messages to other cell phone users. Alexander Graham Bell might have a good laugh at that one, but it could be the wireless killer app everyone's looking for.
Eric S. Brown, a regular contributor to PCWorld.com, is a freelance writer living in the Boston area.