One of the more interesting, potentially troubling developments of the last few years is the rise of the social messaging app. Software like WhatsApp, Kik, and iMessage are all the rage nowadays, mostly because they’re cheaper than the alternative — our old, price-gouging friend, SMS.

That trend reached a major milestone last year. For the first time ever, smartphone users sent more messages via chat apps than they did with SMS — 19 billion versus 17.6 billion, according to analysis firm Informa. For carriers, that’s a worrying thing: If people are using software like WhatsApp, then they could be decreasing their reliance on SMS.

In theory, anyway. While social messaging app use is on the rise, so is SMS revenue: Informa expects that SMS will help carriers pull in $127 billion by 2016, up from $115 billion last year.

Apple iMessage

Above: The death of SMS could also mean the death of texting interoperability.

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/booleansplit/8414735791/sizes/c/in/photostream/

Still, the decline of SMS is, in many senses, inevitable. Social messaging apps are cheaper and more exciting than SMS, so it’s not surprising to see people flocking to them. Still, it’s worth considering what we lose in that transition away from SMS — specifically, interoperability.

SMS, while obviously a cash cow for carriers, is actually a great thing for the average phone owner. It’s a standard, and in our increasingly balkanized tech world, standards are a great thing to have. WhatsApp, on the other hand, is not a standard. It’s a proprietary platform, which makes it a lackluster option if you’re looking for a communications medium. (This is true especially for people who own feature phones, where social messaging apps don’t exist — but SMS does.)

With so much interest in messaging apps, it’s not hard to envision a time when it will be virtually impossible for you and your friends to text each other because you’re all using different platforms. Some people will be using iMessage and others will go with WhatsApp or Kik. It’ll be a texting Tower of Babel.

SMS clearly isn’t going to survive forever; it’s dated and, frankly, boring. But unless the successor to SMS addresses the question of standards and interoperability, it’s pretty likely we’re all still going to wind up defaulting back to plain old texting.

Photos: GiaomengRobert S. Donovan

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