Short message service celebrated 20 years in existence on 3 December. We discuss its relevance with Robert Sussman

The first SMS was sent on 3 December 1992 when engineer Neil Papworth used his computer to send a “Merry Christmas” message to Richard Jarvis from Vodafone to his mobile phone. Since then, a lot of people have been using the service as an alternative to making calls, and businesses have been using it to communicate with consumers and generate additional income.

We chat to Robert Sussman, joint CEO of ICT company the Integr8 Group and ofZunguZ, a multi-tiered platform that integrates social networks, financial service providers and banking institutions to facilitate micro-payments, regarding the relevance of SMS in a world that is increasingly dominated by smartphonesand instant messaging

With the likes of Whatsapp, BlackBerry Messenger and other instant messaging services available, will SMSing still be relevant in the future?
I think one of the reasons why the SMS technology has a strong foothold in the market is because of the use and availability of non-smartphones in emerging markets. So this is predominantly where SMS has been a premium service and is obviously cheaper than making a phone call. But going forward, we’re starting to notice, especially in the emerging market, the penetration of smartphones. As a result, customers are becoming more aware of applications like Whatsapp and Facebook messenger. The appeal is that you don’t pay per message – you pay for the usage of data.

Do you think service providers will eventually offer SMS for free?
If you look at the way that Research In Motion (the company that owns BlackBerry) is offering its services to the market with its smart bundle offers – where you get free data, BBM and the use of other applications at a standard cost – that was quite a smart way of attracting users to itsdevices. But I don’t think that service providers will ever offer SMSes for free, because there is a cost involved and apart from that, they are now used to making a substantial profit from the service.

The service has been used for competition lines as well. The problem is that the public isn’t aware that at least 50% of the charges of the text are actually going to the service provider. For example, if an organisation says “donate” R10 to a particular number by SMS, R5 will go to the service providers.

For businesses that still use SMS as a marketing tool, can they  change and adapt to new technology?
I think there will become a time when it won’t make sense to utilise the service the way they are using it now. SMSes aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. From a business perspective, and for the short-term, businesses are still going to be using SMS to contact their clients and market their business. In the long-term, we will see a big move away from SMS to instant messaging. I’d advice corporates to prepare now for the change.