Top 5 Reasons Twitter Beats SMS (and Vice Versa)

A few Twitter-related things have cropped up recently that have swirled up into a perfect-micro-blogging storm for yours truly. The first is that Mike Temporale at Mobile Jaw recommended pocketwit, an excellent Twitter client for Windows Mobile. By the end of this article, I hope you've downloaded the software and installed it, because it's my go-to Twitter client and rivaled only by desktop clients in speed, UI, and convenience. Sincerely, pocketwit is great. (Minor Update: I tend to prefer ceTwit on Windows Mobile Standard devices)

The second is that Engadget Mobile pointed us to this NYTimes article that confirms what I've often ranted about on the Podcast: there's no good reason for text message rates to keep going up as they are, because the more text messages that get sent (and they're getting sent in record numbers), the less each particular text message costs the carriers. In fact, it's even more egregious than your typical economy of scale, because the technology behind SMS is so wildly scalable that they basically cost next to nothing for carriers to transmit -- it uses a “control channel” that has to be open anyway. So basically the only cost to carriers is making sure the buggers get sent correctly and while I don't want to say that's nothing, it's definitely not something that needs to increase in cost as the number of text messages rise.

The third, well, was that I was back home for the holidays and found Twitter to be an excellent replacement for SMS amongst the people that use Twitter.

So read on to see why I think Twitter is better than SMS and what you can do to start using it.

Top Five Reasons Twitter Beats SMS

1. Twitter is free

Well, Twitter is mostly free, it does require a data plan, many people (in the US, at least) use Twitter in conjunction with SMS messages, and theoretically the company may need to start charging someday. For now, anyway, Twitter is free.

2. Twitter is Social

Twitter was originally conceived as a “microblogging” format designed to answer the question “What are you doing right now?” Common Craft's “Twitter in Plain English” is a nice explanation of the whole idea: other words, you can use Twitter to make little microblogs. What's more, you can plug Twitter into pretty much anything. I use the Twitter Facebook App to automatically update my Facebook status with my latest non-message Tweet. There are plenty of ways to get Twitter to communicate with other social services / blogs / etc out there as well.

Of course, since I'm pitching Twitter as an SMS replacement, you should know that you can use Twitter to communicate directly with people instead of just throwing messages out onto the internet. If you put “@” in front of somebody's Twitter name, it sends them a public message, if you put “d ” (that's “d” with a space) in front of their name, it sends them a private message.

3. Twitter is Platform Independent

This might be my favorite thing about Twitter as an SMS replacement. You can use it over the web, on a client on your desktop, on a client on your phone, over SMS, and (if/when it works) over IM as well. All of your messages are archived and are mirrored exactly on whatever platform you use to access it.

Basically, you can do Twitter however is most convenient for you. As important for me is that Twitter isn't in the control of the carriers and their rate hikes -- I can use it on my terms. I'm also (infamously) anti-BlackBerry PIN messaging for similar reasons -- I want the methods of communication I use to travel with me on whatever device I happen to chose. Number portability is nice, but I'll take Twitter's portability over that any day. The one thing that keeps me from using a service like Grand Central is the fact that it cannot forward text messages -- if everybody used Twitter, that wouldn't be an issue.

4. Twitter Gives you Control Over Whom You Speak With

If you want to be able to SMS somebody, you need their cell phone number and vice versa. This, often, is not ideal -- there are plenty of people I'd like to have SMS-style conversations with who I do not want to give my phone number to. Twitter is perfect for this. You simply hand out your Twitter name and badda bing -- they have a way to send you a quick message on the go. Just as importantly, if there's some maroon you don't want to speak with, you can block them.

Since Twitter is username-based, you can usually pick a username that matches up with whatever username you use elsewhere, so there's the potential for a nice, unified online presence for you (don't get me started on online identities, however...).

5. Twitter Handles the Public and the Private

Twitter gives you control over which of your messages are public and which ones are private. Looking to get some friends together at the bar, send a public Tweet microblog-style message. Want to rib somebody because his precious, precious Bears didn't get into the playoffs, that's definitely a public @ message. Want to send a typical, SMS-style private message, use the d.

Top Five Reasons SMS beats Twitter

  1. You Have to Sign Up. This here is the achilles heel of Twitter. If somebody has a cell phone, they have SMS and they can (typically) figure out how to receive and send SMS. With Twitter, the added hurdles of 1. Explaining what the service is, 2. getting your friends to sign up, and 3. showing them how it works is still very high.
  2. Twitter is Social. Twitter's default question is “What are you doing right now?” and some people take that to heart, filling your Twitter feed with annoying banter. While there are controls over what gets pushed out to you and what doesn't and so on, they aren't as fine-grained as you might like.
  3. Twitter is 140 characters. Yep, SMS is 160 characters, Twitter is only 140. For people used to the 160 character limit, losing those extra 20 characters can be a real downer.
  4. Twitter Goes Down Sometimes. Not as often as it used to, but Twitter doesn't exactly have 99.9% uptime. The other question, related to the issues above, is that you're possibly trading the devil you know (the carriers) for the devil you don't (Twitter). Thus far, Twitter has been the furthest thing from evil, but that could change. The company could go under, they could start charging, any number of things could happen here. For now, though, I don't see any actual reasons to fear using Twitter for your messages -- just the standard internet-based fears.
  5. Twitter Doesn't Always Push. This one is tough, too. People in the United States can use Twitter over SMS (ironic, no?), but outside the US it only works over data. Most mobile clients require that they manually refresh twitter every so often, so for most Twitter isn't as immediate as SMS. It's also not built-into phones, so it's often harder for novices to learn.

Go Twitter

Despite those 5 caveats, I'm going to start using Twitter more and SMS less. I think you should too. Heck, I'll even put my money where my mouth is (especially regarding benefit #4). Here come the links:

Dieter Bohn