The UK loves SMS. As a nation, we regularly send over ten million texts an hour and SMS is used at all levels of society, far more so than email or voice calls. Things may not always be so rosy for SMS, however. A recent Forbes report shows that SMS usage is falling worldwide. Even the traditional SMS fest on Christmas Day was down from 2010 -- too busy tweeting "Mum and aunty Beatrice are arguing about the gravy again," were we? There are now many apps and services that will let you send short, near-instant messages to your friend's mobiles. Here's our pick of the best:
In the UK at least, BlackBerry Messenger is already a popular alternative to text messaging. Blamed by some for the almost viral way that riots spread across the UK last year, BBM is the reason that the BlackBerry has shifted from being a business tool to a virtual youth cult.
Lately though, the shine has come off the BlackBerry brand thanks to some high profile network outages and the simple fact that the BlackBerry now has many competitors that seem at least as cool, if not more so. There were signs that RIM is aware of this last shortcoming and was making moves to open up the BBM protocol to other OS users, but industry rumours suggest that this project has been canned. Barring a miracle, BBM is going to be following SMS into the knacker’s yard.
Apple put US phone networks' collective nose out of joint when it revealed iMessage at last year's WWDC without clueing them in first. US mobile users typically pay to receive SMS messages, so the idea of a free to use alternative messaging system that works across all phone networks and wifi, denies them SMS revenue and uses their 3G data must have made network bosses spit feathers.
iMessage is built into iOS 5 with a typically slick interface, but you can only chat with other iOS users. Still, those are the only people who matter, right?
Google Talk started life as a chat app that was swiftly folded into Google Mail. Thanks to Android, this little IM app is now available on tens of millions of phones and there are apps that can speak GTalk's Jabber protocol on iOS; BlackBerry; Windows Phone; the web and very probably your toaster.
If there is a fly in the GTalk ointment, it is that iOS users still don't have a proper official app. Sure, you can use unofficial apps from the App Store or multi-protocol chat apps like Meebo, but Google seems to be intentionally neglecting a huge wedge of potential users.
Samsung's many Android users all have Google Talk, of course, but The 'Sung (as we don't call them) has a legion of Bada users to think about too.
ChatON ships with Bada 2.0 but there are ChatON apps available for iOS, Android and BlackBerry (but not Windows Phone as yet). You can do all the usual things -- group chat; instant real-time conversations; multimedia messages. The only real downside is a lack of users. We installed this on our Galaxy S II and -- despite knowing a lot of Samsung users -- found not one contact who had it installed.
WhatsApp may yet prove to have the secret weapon against spammers with its almost nominal charge for usage. Conversely, charging even a tiny fee might lock out younger users who don't have access to a credit card to make the payment. You might see this as a good thing, but it will be an issue if WhatsApp wants to step into BBM's shoes.
In the last few months, WhatsApp has been the target of a number of hoax rumours about its plans to charge if you have fewer than 10 contacts and other nonsense. There have also been rumblings about security issues that saw WhatsApp briefly pulled from the App Store. If it can weather these storms, WhatsApp will be one to watch.
KIK offers lightning-fast messaging with the ability to see when your messages have been read -- a crucial feature for impatient stalkers everywhere.
KIK also makes it very easy to invite other users through SMS, email and social networks. On Android the 'Invite' button will let you use whatever sharing methods you have installed so filling out your addressbook with fellow KIK users should be fairly painless.
There are other alternatives, but no clear winner. Our gut tells us that Google Talk should edge ahead thanks to its enormous user base, but there is still everything to play for. One thing is certain -- all of these apps offer at least a little bit more than SMS. Texting's days are numbered -- get the message?