Text messaging

While Asian and European markets are embracing the new form of communication, Americans have been slower to support the costly trend of
Friday, November 21, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:40 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Tired of talking on your cell phone in public and having complete strangers listen in on your personal life? Maybe it’s time you started text messaging.

At least that’s what your cellular carrier hopes. Text messaging, the act of sending written messages between cell phones, is being heavily marketed by U.S. cellular carriers who want customers to use their phones for more than just talk.

But although text messaging has been popular in Europe for the past few years, particularly among young people, the technology has been slow to win over North American wireless customers.

European enthusiasm and American ambivalence for text messaging has a lot to do with cost. Although text messaging is cheaper than wireless phone calls in European and Asian countries, North American carriers provide more economic monthly calling packages and more expensive text messaging.

In the United States, incoming text messages are free to receive, but some mobile carriers charge $2.99 per month for sending 100 messages and $9.99 per month for 750 messages. Other more expensive U.S. carriers charge as much as $5 per month for just 300 messages. Most carriers also offer pay-as-you-go options, ranging from 5 to 15 cents per stand-alone message.

To promote the technology in new U.S. markets, U.S. Cellular sponsored a text messaging scavenger hunt last month. Advertising $2,000, $750 and $250 cash prizes to winners, the event took place on college campuses nationwide, including MU.

Of the four members on the winning MU team, only one said he uses the text messaging service on his cell phone. “I use it every now and then, but it costs me a lot of money,” said Matt Haywood, an MU senior.

“I use it in class, even before class,” said Alexis Cody, a participant from another student group. “You know, I might text one of my friends and ask them, ‘Hey, can you save me a seat?’ ”

MU students who have spent time in Europe appear to be more comfortable with the technology.

“I was in Europe all summer, and it’s just what you do,” said Steve Boyle, an MU senior who studied in Britain. “Everyone uses it. It’s cheaper than making a phone call.”

MU senior Amy Smith also used text messaging last summer in Europe, and said she does use it stateside in certain situations. “Like if you’re in a club, you can just write ‘I’m here,’ and they don’t have to hear you. If you call, no one hears your cell phone.”

But others find the technology clumsy and impersonal.

“I don’t see the advantage. I would rather have a conversation,” said Jim Marsilio, a senior at MU. Marsilio said it’s a pain to look at a tiny screen and type on a tiny keyboard just to communicate with his friends.

Teri Twyman, Missouri marketing manager for U.S. Cellular, said such complaints are the main reason it will be some time before U.S. markets use cell phones as their internet venue. “The industry’s just not there yet,” Twyman said. “Here, wireless industries went for the business segment first.”

Jeremy Pemble, spokesman for AT&T Mobile, said a number of “historical impediments” are responsible for the United States lagging behind the European wireless markets.

Europe had mobile handsets capable of two-way messages from the start, but U.S. phones didn’t add the feature until just a couple of years ago.

Pemble said European and Asian markets have also offered cross-carrier text messaging (messages sent between customers of different wireless carriers) for some time. AT&T Mobile began offering cross-carrier messaging in November 2001, and its competitors began the service in early 2002.

U.S. wireless customers have also been slow to view their phone as anything other than a phone. Pemble said that until just recently, “People (in the United States) still looked at phones as a means for making calls only.”

Wireless companies are now trying to educate consumers about what else their cell phones have to offer. AT&T Mobile recently sponsored the hit reality television show, “American Idol.” People around the nation were encouraged to cast their votes through text messages sent over AT&T wireless phones. The campaign was successful; 7.5 million votes were cast.

Many sports and stock Web sites now offer free text messaging updates to wireless users.

Text messaging is helping bridge the gap between yesterday’s wireless technology and tomorrow’s Internet-savvy cell phones, but Twyman said U.S. markets still have a way to go before customers are comfortable using their cell phones as personal computers.

“I really think it’s going to take being able to replicate the experience people have on their home computer,” Twyman said.

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