On April 3, 1973, the first public call to a cell phone was made by Motorola engineer Marty Cooper. But it took 40 more years for the cell phone to make its way into mainstream pop culture when it came to being portrayed in entertainment. But as 2014 gets underway in earnest, you’ll notice that mobility-as-plotline has really come into its own, with SMS messaging in particular gaining status as almost a character unto itself. And no wonder—texting has reached unprecedented usage levels, across all demographics—signaling its usefulness not just as a pop culture icon, but also as a medium for marketing and an anchor for future carrier services. That’s especially important as the WhatsApps of the world look to cannibalize SMS going forward.
The Rise of the Mobile ‘Character’
Mobile phones are actually older than you may think—much, much older according to this clip from 1938—but if there’s a truism in movies and TV shows through the early 2000s, it’s the fact that most plots of action films and others could be rendered moot if the protagonist had only had a cell phone.
Unsurprisingly, this has become a trope, inspiring all kinds of pop culture-watcher snark. “Home Alone”? Just pick up the phone and call your parents, Macaulay! “National Lampoon’s Vacation”? An attempt at mobile reservations at Walley World (or how about just calling ahead?) would have avoided a lot of heartache for the Griswolds. But then, Clark never would have run into Christie Brinkley, either. And then there’s the horror genre: “Friday the 13th” for one could have been eviscerated, as it were, with a simple text: “Camp Crystal Lake sis kind of creepy—come get me. :-(”
That said, the early days of phones in flicks and TV have some memorable entries—remember “The X-Files”? Mulder and Scully’s antennae-tastic cell phones never ran out of power—and they seemed to work everywhere. Even in, say, Antarctica. And Tunguska, Siberia. You know, all of those oft-visited, populated places.
“Lethal Weapon” goes down in the annals thanks to Danny Glover’s unforgettable “bag phone,” a sure sign of hip at the time.
Danny Glover as Roger Murtaugh on a mobile phone in "Lethal Weapon." Image via flickfeast.
More recently, in a nod to the era of ubiquitous cell phones, the requisite “no reception” premise has been built into plotlines that would be otherwise be shattered by actual modern communication. The unfortunate victims of the redneck torture zombies in “Cabin in the Woods” simply had no coverage with which to call for help; Jodie Foster in “Panic Room” is reduced to signaling a neighbor with a flashlight through the opening of a ventilation pipe—which, of course, fails. Naturally. And so on, and so on.
Texting Reaches Billions
Even as the entertainment industry struggles to reconcile mundane, run-of-the-mill mobile communications practices with the needs of outsized dramatic license, one wireless communications method has gone from ancillary to central in daily life. Thanks to worldwide interoperability (something that mobile apps and over-the-top messaging services can’t claim), there are three billion mobile users in the world with SMS capability, according to the GSMA. And according to Forrester Research, people send or receive an average of 35 messages per day — that’s more than six billion messages worldwide every 24 hours.
“Even with the increased use of instant messaging, SMS remains the workhorse of mobile,” said Forrester analyst Michael O’Grady. “U.S. adults are more than twice as likely to have adopted SMS as any other form of mobile messaging, such as e-mail, MMS or instant messaging. With more than 80 percent of the U.S. population owning a mobile phone and with almost 70 percent of these phone owners regularly sending or receiving text messages, SMS will remain a significant part of the mobile landscape for the foreseeable future.”
From Extra to Main Character
With texting becoming as integral to American life as, say, commuting to work or being concerned about extreme weather events, it’s unsurprising that it’s bucking Hollywood’s “I’d rather it wasn’t there to spoil my plot” trend. Instead, it’s starting to be written into entertainment fare as a core part of the mise-en-scene.
For instance, a new “Late Night with Seth Meyers” bit offers up photographs and the corresponding supposed text conversations of the rich and famous. “We learn that Secretary of State John Kerry is incredibly verbose when it comes to saying bye,” explained one pop culture blog. “It's also come to our knowledge that Ben Affleck is seeking guidance on how to play Batman and he's praying he's from Boston.”
But as Ars Technica points out, SMS has also gained a starring role in TV series, like “Sherlock” and “House of Cards.” Both shows make use of stylized reflections of characters texting—what they’re saying, what they’re giving away, and what they don’t know that the person next to them is saying.
“The most recent season of ‘House of Cards’ has taken up ‘Sherlock's style of technology integration, making liberal use of text messages in turning the events of scenes, even doing some parallel processing of different plot lines,” the ‘zine noted. “What ‘House of Cards’ does better than other TV shows is formatting the communication format into a generic set of text bubbles overlaid on the events of the screen.”
Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes, receiving a text in "House of Cards." Image via flickr.
In last year’s “Disconnect,” Jason Bateman walks around the world generally communicating with people non-verbally—through social media, and, of course, texting. In one scene he uncovers that his son's girlfriend doesn't actually exist—the online persona is merely a construct that someone created—and the drama plays out entirely via SMS.
“Non Stop,” the latest Liam Neeson-as-badass feature, actually centers around texting. On a flight from New York to London, his character—an air marshal—receives a mysterious message on his secured government texting line demanding he deposit $150 million in a specific bank account—otherwise, one passenger on the plane will die every 20 minutes. It’s sort of like the voice-scrambled phone calls to the house line in Scream: it’s creepier thanks to the unidentifiable, disembodied nature of the communications choice.
What It Means for the Ecosystem
The everyday integration of texting into daily life (and fictional, portrayed life) isn’t just an interesting pop culture note—it also has big implications for brands and carriers. For instance, consumers are more open to advertising communications by text, if it’s an opt-in, “concierge-like” experience.
According to Millward Brown Digital, 40 percent of mobile consumers who are in the market for a new product use their smartphones and/or tablets to research their purchases. Consumers who use mobile devices to research purchases visit retailer sites more frequently than those who use PCs alone. According to the research, mobile visitors engage with top retailers twice as often as PC visitors (on average, 6.2 times per month vs. 2.9 times per month). For brands looking to master mobile purchase opportunities this means they have twice as many opportunities to convert individuals, or lose them to a more effective rival, on a mobile device, says the report.
However, no one wants to be bombarded by SMS junk messages, either, which many subscribers also have to pay for. “Mobile is simultaneously a top-priority and a blind spot for virtually everyone in the marketing ecosystem,” said Stephen DiMarco, CMO at Millward Brown Digital, said. “Gaining a more complete view into mobile attitudes and behaviors is…critical to getting mobile right.” He added that brands must ensure that mobile complements the overall “brand-building mix.”
For carriers, the continued popularity of texting vis-a-vis using a dedicated mobile app like WhatsApp or Viber is something that they need to capitalize on and protect going forward. Facebook’s $19 billion purchase of mobile-messaging startup WhatsApp, which lets users text and chat at virtually no charge, has sparked much conversation about the future of carrier-based texting; and while the competitive threat there is limited to those that download and use the application, there are already competitive shifts afoot.
In 2013, OTT applications cost phone providers around the world $32.5 billion in texting fees in 2013, according to research from Ovum. That figure is projected to reach $54 billion by 2016.
According to Informa Telecoms & Markets, daily OTT messaging traffic has already overtaken daily SMS traffic in terms of volume, with an average of 41 billion OTT messages sent per day in 2013, more than doubling the 19.1 billion per day sent in 2012.
While there are far more SMS users than there are OTT messaging users (What’s App has 450 million active users so far), each OTT user sent an average of 32.6 OTT messages a day, compared with just five SMS messages per day—a whopping six times as many.
Even though SMS and OTT messaging are two different services, and are used in different ways by subscribers, Informa believes that a comparison of the average daily traffic of the two services is relevant, given that OTT messaging is increasingly used as a substitute for SMS in a number of markets.
“It is unlikely that SMS will die out anytime soon, however,” the firm said. “Informa forecasts that global SMS revenues and traffic will continue to increase through 2016.”
That’s for three main reasons: as noted, the adoption and use of OTT-messaging apps is far from universal; and, although there are multiple OTT-messaging “communities” within which mobile users can message each other for free, OTT-messaging users typically use SMS when communicating with non-OTT users.
Also, SMS is starting to hit its stride in the enterprise mobile messaging market. Forrester said that 70 percent of enterprises today consider SMS the most important mobile technology, with an additional 16 percent planning to begin using texting for official business purposes in 2014.
To win in the long run, carriers need to acknowledge these positives and take them further in order to find enhanced revenue streams. SMS has become a core part of our culture. And while it’s not going away anytime soon, carriers would be wise to capitalize on its celebrity status—before it becomes yesterday’s fading star.
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