This Week’s Agenda: SMS SOS?

This week, I’m at the CTIA show in Orlando, FL, where much of the excitement is over the advertising potential of a new online medium.

SMS stands for short message service. Sprint advertised it heavily during the Winter Olympics (the commercial in which the sleepy skier was tricked into falling out of the gondola into deep powder snow).

SMS messages can only be 160 characters long. They go through a separate server and run in a separate channel from voice calls, so they nearly always get through. SMS messages can be sent to (or received by) Internet addresses.

SMS spread from the bottom up. Young users had created their own shorthand, such as C U l8tr (see you later), before service providers were even ready to charge for the service. It wasn’t documented, but it was essentially free.

Like most mobile technology, SMS spread from overseas to the U.S. It’s wildly popular in Europe and Asia, with over 20 billion SMS messages sent each month. U.S. carriers were slow to offer interoperability among SMS networks and were distracted by that awful WAP protocol.

Suddenly, SMS is hot.

Keynote Systems has begun measuring SMS networks’ performance.

Mobile phone makers have announced Wireless Village, an initiative aimed at making SMS compatible with other mobile text services.

The first SMS scams have been sighted, and SMS has been used in law enforcement.

SMS-based news services are emerging, as is a shopping service.

Early surveys found European users would welcome personalized marketing messages sent via SMS.

There are still hurdles. Though European carriers share SMS messages seamlessly, U.S. carriers don’t work and play well together. Some SMS messages can take days to reach their destinations.

Still, solutions are coming and marketers aren’t far behind.

InphoMatch Inc. of Chantilly, VA, rolled out an SMS gateway that’s already delivering 30 million messages per month, even before carriers started advertising it.

Vibes Media of Evanston, IL, is offering “wireless coupons” in conjunction with community and address book services.

The big cellular companies — AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, SBC, and Cingular — are here in Orlando pushing their own plans to make big money from what most analysts call a “teen obsession.”

5th Finger of Australia is among the first outfits to specialize in SMS marketing. (One early client is Guinness beer). This month, it launched an SMS marketing gateway called air-cast.

Because SMS messages must go through a carrier-operated gateway, permission will be imperative for SMS marketing, 5th Finger says.

Add the mandate for “Wireless E911” location services to SMS messaging, and you start to see possibilities. Teenagers might want to be offered a bargain as they walk by a store — they might even pay to receive a coupon.

Will Americans buy into this technology and accept marketing strategies that have been imported? That’s what I’m here trying to find out.

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