Americans Can’t Quit SMS

What’s the big deal if America’s texting relies on phone lines? Well, SMS is an old and rickety technology awkwardly crammed into newer ones.

WeChat, WhatsApp, Signal and other modern texting apps often let users see which of their friends are online, send high-definition images and animations, share physical locations with the people they’re texting, and connect with apps directly in chats to send money or do other tasks.

Roughly half of U.S. smartphone owners have iPhones and live in this modern chat world, unless they communicate with Android phone users. SMS handles most of the functions above with difficulty.

Maybe basic texts are just fine in many cases, but SMS also has security limitations. In new TV commercials, WhatsApp stresses that SMS is vulnerable to snoops or criminals reading our messages. WhatsApp and similar apps like Signal use a technology that locks down texts from prying eyes. This encryption technology draws criticism because it also hides messages from law enforcement.

I want to stick up, a little, for the simple beauty of SMS. You can’t use WhatsApp to text your friend who uses iMessage, but SMS is universal. And it makes me feel uneasy to suggest that everyone should use WhatsApp and make one Big Tech company the gateway to all of our digital communications.

I asked Nitesh Patel, the director of wireless media research at Strategy Analytics, if there is a middle ground between America’s reliance on SMS and a corporate app like WhatsApp becoming the digital front door. Patel cited the more updated cousin to SMS known as RCS, or rich communications services. (I know, the jargon is awful.)

RCS is a mess, but it has more modern features than SMS and is pretty secure. Like SMS it is a shared technology that no single company controls. Google has pushed RCS, and it has replaced SMS texting on some Android phones. But Apple will most likely never go along with it, which means that RCS will never be a universal texting technology.