The first text message was sent on 3 December 1992, containing the simple message, “Merry Christmas.” It revolutionized communication, and in the 29 years since, SMS has become ubiquitous. For a long time, it reigned supreme as the dominant means of messaging.
However, for all the ease and convenience of SMS, it has some significant limitations—including security issues, a restrictive 160-character limit, and the inability to include rich media—pointing to the waning usefulness of the channel for businesses today.
Think about it: how many text messages have you sent today?
And iMessages don’t count. While you can receive SMSes via iMessage—they’re easily identifiable because they turn the chat green, to the annoyance of iPhone users—the technology behind iMessage is closer to that of messaging apps like WhatsApp or Viber.
Now, ask yourself how many SMSes you’ve received in the past week and what kinds of SMS they were.
Odds are, many of them were marketing messages, two-factor authentication pins, transaction notifications, and if you’re an iPhone user, the occasional message from an acquaintance with an Android.
SMS is fast becoming a legacy technology for ever-narrowing use cases, with richer, more contextual communication happening elsewhere: especially in messenger apps such as WhatsApp and WeChat.
Most popular global mobile messenger apps as of January 2021, based on the number of monthly active users
The decline of SMS
SMS had its place. It had the significant advantage of reaching a user at any time, even when they’re not logged into your app or connected to the internet—assuming that you have their mobile number and permission. And nobody can beat those open rates: upwards of 90%, according to Gartner.
However, beyond an increasingly limited set of use cases where SMS is preferable, you must consider its pitfalls.
Cheaper mobile data is driving new behavior
Growing access to reliable internet and dropping data prices makes SMS less critical for reaching users. In countries where phone plans don’t include unlimited texting, purchases of prepaid SMS-based plans are declining in favor of data bundles. This indicates a broader trend of using data-driven means of communication, like chat apps instead of SMS-based texting.
Replying to an SMS costs your users money if they don’t have unlimited texting as part of their mobile plan. In many countries, lower-income consumers purchase airtime or mobile data on a pay-as-you-go basis and may have few or no texts, relying on WiFi instead.
Because of this, SMS has less power to connect you to your users, or your users to each other.
SMS has limited functionality
SMSes are short and transactional. Unlike messages sent over WiFi, SMS is subject to 160 character limits, concise communication that is functional but impersonal.
Chat apps offer greater functionality by enabling individuals to exchange rich media like images, GIFs, videos, voice recordings, and more. Chat apps also facilitate the creation of group discussions and offer a higher level of two-way interaction through real-time engagement features like typing indicators and read receipts.
Chat apps also typically allow voice and video calling, which is often more affordable than traditional phone calls–particularly when making international calls.
SMS disrupts your app experience
SMS comes with an inherent disruption: exiting one channel to read a message in another. Even this simple action interrupts the user experience.
Consumers can also perceive SMS as an unwanted interruption, making your communications seem spam-like as opposed to branded and relevant to the user’s immediate experience.
Instead, deliver relevant messaging using your mobile app. When customers receive a message within your mobile app, you don’t have to worry about a fragmented experience. You can be sure that your communications are reaching your audience in a contextual way.
Security concerns with SMS
Security and privacy concerns are another reason for the decline of SMS. SMS is frequently used to confirm user identity or send one-time pins for two-factor authentication (2FA). However, a growing list of recent SMS database breaches and scams like SIM swap fraud are beginning to make it clear that SMS has major security vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, messaging apps like Signal and Telegram offer advanced end-to-end encryption and disappearing messaging, and apps like Google Authenticator and Authy offer a more secure alternative to text-based 2FA.
Companies are responsible to their customers for ensuring safe and secure communications. And unfortunately, it’s only become easier to create fake SMS messages that look like they’re coming for your brand.
The average SMS inbox is no longer where consumers’ most important conversations are taking place. SMS simply can’t measure up to the rich experiences offered by modern chat apps.
Why in-app chat is superior to SMS
In-app chat fits what modern app builders seek when considering alternatives to SMS. In-app chat delivers rich, contextual user experiences in addition to being a more secure channel.
We’ve written extensively on the benefits of in-app chat over SMS. Consumers now expect relevant and cohesive mobile experiences that enhance the customer journey, rather than disjointed communications coming from different channels.