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SMS vs IM - now I have the perfect metaphor: The Borg

Picture of Tomi Ahonen
SMS vs IM - now I have the perfect metaphor: The Borg
by Tomi Ahonen - Monday, 13 March 2006, 9:33 AM

Hi All

Alan Moore and I met with the Peter Miles, the CEO of SubTV UK last week in London. We discussed youth and mobiles (among many other things). Peter had the perfect four-word description for young people today with their mobile phones and SMS: "They are the Borg."

I blogged about it at length at www.communities-dominate.blogs.com but here the brief version. Contrasting all other network technologies and communication used by the youth, such community sites on the web, multiplayer gaming, IM instant messenger services, and e-mail etc., to SMS text messaging, only one enables the youth to be like "the Borg" are in the TV series Star Trek Next Generation (and Voyager) - and that is SMS.

IM is the closest to SMS. Americans like to think that when their youth uses IM, it is the same (or even superior) behaviour to what European and Asian youth do with SMS. Not true. Here is where this metaphor helps to clearly establish the difference. And obviously I am not discussing IM on mobile, I mean IM on fixed internet, broadband and WiFi networks.

In the Star Trek series, the Borg are a half-android population spanning the galaxy, in which every member of the Borg collective is permanently connected to every other member of their society. The Star Trek heroes, by contrast, have an excellent wireless networkn upon their spaceship (everybody connected to everybody else) and long-range communications to various planets, other space ships, and depending on conditions, to "away teams" on a given planet. Invariably the episode storylines involve Star Trek heroes becoming disconnected from their communication networks, and part of the episode is used to re-establish contact.

The Star Trek characters are like our other networks today, the web, multiplayer online games, e-mail and IM. You have powerful communication when YOU are connected AND when YOUR FRIEND is ALSO simultaneously connected. This is not permanent (for all). You are not connected to the web when you are in a bus, in a train, taking a bathroom break for the computer, or go to bed. IM is not with you at those times. But - you do take your mobile phone with you everywhere, it means that even when you are out of reach of the other networks (the IM in still on and connected at your PC on your desk, but you went to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee).

SMS is the most connected of all of our messaging networks, and twice as many people - 1.3 Billion - are using it than the next most popular messaging tool (e-mail has 668 Million individual users, who have 1.2 Billion mailboxes in use at end of 2005). Everybody connected, and the only messaging connection that is permanently connected, virtually everywhere. Yes, we take it to the bathroom and physically to bed with us. We don't carry our laptop to the bathroom or (nightly) to the bed.

That is how the youth, using SMS, is like the Borg. They are permanently connected to their "collective" or community or their mates and friends. At all times. And anyone who is not addicted to SMS, is as much at a disadvantage as the Star Trek crew are, when they have spotty coverage, sometimes online, sometimes not - and more importantly, their mates and friends are also at times unconnected - and the timing of this unconnectedness of our friends is unpredictable.

Peter Miles had examples of what all the youth do with SMS, I think the most revealing is that the (UK university age) youth regularly send SMS text messages to each other while in the same room. Yes, I could speak to my mate, but then the others would hear. Maybe its a rude joke, or maybe a personal secret, like I am attracted to this girl here, or something else secretive. That is what SMS allows - private communication of a conspiring nature. An exclusive club even when among friends. Sending text messages to each other while sitting at the same table, etc. This is a radical change in behaviour not witnessed with any previous generation. It is what we write about in our book with Alan Moore. It is totally behaviour of Generation-C for Community. It is as different from previous generations as the frightening Borg was from humankind in Star Trek.

And one last note along these lines. The Borg always repeated only one line when the Starship Enterprise crew attempted to communicate with them. The Borg replied with the chilling statement: You will be assimilated. This too I think totally applies to SMS. Sooner or later everybody will get onboard. Anyone reading this site should be a regular user of SMS. If you are not, then get with the programme: SMS is the fastest form of communication ever and the sooner you learn to use it, the more you can gain from it. To quote the Borg: "It is useless to resist - you will be assimilated."

Tomi Ahonen / HatRat   :-)

Picture of Elmer Zinkhann
Re: SMS vs IM - now I have the perfect metaphor: The Borg
by Elmer Zinkhann - Monday, 13 March 2006, 11:38 AM
"That is what SMS allows - private communication of a conspiring nature. An exclusive club even when among friends. Sending text messages to each other while sitting at the same table, etc. This is a radical change in behaviour not witnessed with any previous generation."

I'd say this would be a digital version of passing notes, a practice that has been with us for a long time.

I actually think the perfect metaphor will be when we do get mobile IM. To be able to not just send, but when you get feed-forward to see if the other person or persons - as group-comms is easier with IM - are listening before you pick up. Continuous collective connectivity with an added layer of presence, something that is missing with SMS. I do like the Borg metaphor, yet, I think SMS does not allow for the 'collective' feature.

my 2 cts.

Picture of Tomi Ahonen
MIM when - SMS vs IM - now I have the perfect metaphor: The Borg
by Tomi Ahonen - Monday, 13 March 2006, 1:51 PM

Hi Elmer

I agree with you, that then, when, Mobile IM will be with all relevant members of a community, it will be even more of the Borg metaphor. But today, SMS is closest to it, and IM on fixed internet is not.

And separately yes, passing notes is the other good example, but passing notes usually stops when we leave school ha-ha, but the SMS passing notes behaviour continues far into adulthood - check out all the young execs in any meeting room, passing notes during meetings to make fun of the boss, etc...

Tomi Ahonen / HatRat    :-)

Picture of Tomi Ahonen
been tossing it around my mind for a few months - MIM when - SMS vs IM - now I have the perfect metaphor: The Borg
by Tomi Ahonen - Monday, 13 March 2006, 5:26 PM

Hi Elmer and William

Elmer: good question. I have been tossing it around my mind and I think we have roughly two separate but parallel trends.

One is the migration of urgent and secret messaging to SMS. This happens in all markets, is addictive (ie never will end) and inevitable. But the migration to SMS is not an "end state". It is not an inherently superior technology, it has its areas where it is exceptionally well suited, but its not an answer to everything. But this trend is happening everywhere.

Another parallel trend is the fixed internet trend of IM. This is the preferred communication tool when online on the fixed internet. Here too there is a global trend, in all markets the use of IM is increasing.

In markets where IM is well established but SMS is not, eg North America, there is a shifting of some traffic currently on IM (or e-mail, voicemail or push-to-talk) to SMS. In other markets where SMS is heavily entrenched but IM is under-utilized we see the opposite, some SMS usage is shifting to IM.

I think both IM and SMS are addictive and a user will remain hooked through their digital life (unless a superior technology comes along, ie similar to some addicted drug users moving onto heavier drugs)

Pricing, competitive offerings and cultural factors will impact on which is preferred in given situations. An American business executive is probably more receptive to using IM at work, whereas a European or Asian business executive is more receptive to using SMS at work, etc.

I think - this is now my kind of thinking-in-progress, so these are rough thoughts and drafts - that there is a natural domain for each type of messaging. The if users are very familiar with both SMS and IM. Then IM use is perhaps like meeting work mates at the water cooler or the coffee pot. You stop over to just talk about anything, and often have a few people listening in. To specifically "chat" ie to exchange a few thoughts across.

SMS is perhaps more like the post-it note or a secret note given in class. Like the secretary pops into a meeting and hands a note to the boss running the meeting. he looks at the note and excuses himself for a moment out of the meeting, or perhaps scribbles something and gives the note back to the secretary.  Thus SMS ideally - when users know both - is the kind of quick personal notes, secrets, jokes given to one or only a few people. Maybe a quick reply, but not so much dialogue.

Today most users of SMS do not have access to IM, so they are using SMS in probably inappropriate ways. Some of this traffic will shift when these users gain access to IM. In America obviously there is a large portion of web users still today who are not active users of SMS. Not until they learn of the power of this technology can they become astute to pick the suitable messaging medium for a given form of communication.

But as we write in the book, Generation-C is very capable of handling multiple networks often simultaneously. And of course as they tend to be young, Gen-C is very sensitive to price. If they have access to IM and know their friend has IM as well, they will shift discussions from SMS to IM as soon as possible whenever feasible. But after being sent to bed, ha-ha and the PC is turned off - then the mobile phone (and currently only SMS) is the only option.

Now, what of MIM? Mobile IM? I think it will cannibalize SMS. To what degree depends on the relative price differences. But it will also be a natural migration from fixed internet (free IM) to MIM, and again that depends on how heavy a price penalty is charged for mobile access to IM.

Five years from now we will still have SMS use as the biggest messaging platform in terms of users and revenues. Whether SMS grows anymore 5 years from now, that is quite uncertain. IM on the fixed internet will continue to grow and find more revenues (but as in today, IM revenues will be trivial compared to SMS). And mobile IM will find a market but be worth a fraction of SMS revenues and users in five years.

Howzat for some preliminary thoughts. What of other views out there in Forum Oxfordland?

Tomi Ahonen / HatRat   :-) 

Picture of Zigurd Mednieks
Re: been tossing it around my mind for a few months - MIM when - SMS vs IM - now I have the perfect metaphor: The Borg
by Zigurd Mednieks - Monday, 13 March 2006, 6:40 PM
IM is strongly linked to presence, and presence is, in mobile, linked to both IM and push-to-talk, but not integrated.

On your PC, your presence on various IM systems isn't integrated across IM systems. But that isn't a problem, since you can run multiple IM systems simultaneously, and, usually, you are logged on automatically when your system starts up so presence is, at least, managed similarly in each system.

On a mobile handset, IM presence and PTT presence is unlikely to be integrated, which makes presence less useful, and makes IM much weaker in that context. Until IM presence is integrated with other types of presence in the mobile network, IM will be just an application, when it deserves to be a fully integrated mobile communications medium. Once that happens, if that happens, you can start to blur IM and store-and-forward messgaing the way GMail and GoogleTalk do, and users will regard IM as a first-class citizen among the things their mobile can do.
Picture of Dave Birch
Re: been tossing it around my mind for a few months - MIM when - SMS vs IM - now I have the perfect metaphor: The Borg
by Dave Birch - Tuesday, 14 March 2006, 10:19 PM
I agree that presence is a kind of X-factor that will shape the way we move forward. Just look at the way people (in my office, at least) use IM in combination with the mobile phone or the Skype chat with the Skype voice channel. But I also think there's a forensic aspect to IM: people use the IM channel to capture while they're talking or videoconferencing. So if I'm Skyping you, I might say "oh you need to call Steve" and I'll send Steve's number on the chat. Thus, when the call is finished, you still have the phone number on your screen.

One could envisage using "3G Blackberry" to both IM/chat and simultaneously talk to someone.
Picture of William Volk
Re: SMS vs IM - now I have the perfect metaphor: The Borg
by William Volk - Monday, 13 March 2006, 3:31 PM
You nailed it. The 'push' nature of SMS gives it real advantages over 'conventional' IM. My 16 year old and her friends DO use IM, but they use SMS far more often when they are not at their computers. 100's of SMS messages every month.

I would bet that often these SMS messages are "Hey, let's go onto IM" ... which sort of proves the point.
Picture of Elmer Zinkhann
Re: SMS vs IM - now I have the perfect metaphor: The Borg
by Elmer Zinkhann - Monday, 13 March 2006, 4:41 PM
That's interesting actually.
Do you think that mobile IM will behave like IM on the internet? Or do you think it might replace SMS as a message platform. How about when considering IM might also be a platform for push to talk / push to show?

From the above, I think it's very possible the US and European markets might grow in entirely different directions, as people tend to be 'online' more in the USA. We'll stay SMS-based and the US will be IM-based?

So the better question then would be: "what will be the role of IM on a mobile device in Europe?"

Any thoughts?

Picture of Bryan Rieger
Re: SMS vs IM - now I have the perfect metaphor: The Borg
by Bryan Rieger - Monday, 13 March 2006, 6:20 PM
What about presence? SMS doesn't typically provide any feedback regarding your 'status' or ability to engage in a conversation.

In North America IM is used by many people to indicate presence and availability, while SMS is more often used to pass quick messages, directions, questions or notes - and as a result user expectations with SMS (in NA) often don't require 'instant' response or direct conversation.

With the recent release of Eqo (http://eqo.com/) it's now possible to extend your (desktop/web) presence (via Skype for now) into the mobile space without changing context (ie: SMS or Email/Blackberry). When you begin communicating information regarding presence (and availability) the mode of communication can be more 'instant' if the conversation requires it.

I've often seen Europeans hold conversations via SMS - something that I've rarely witnessed in North America. Mind you, many North Americans hold timely conversations via email which probably seems just as odd.
Picture of William Volk
Re: SMS vs IM - now I have the perfect metaphor: The Borg
by William Volk - Monday, 13 March 2006, 6:54 PM
IF IM on Mobile had 'push', that is ... you would get the IM even if you weren't running the software ... maybe it could replace SMS.  I don't think it will.

SMS's async nature is it's advantage.  I only have the data from my daughter and her friends ... IM on the computer, SMS on the phone.  That's what I see.  I specifically asked if they use IM on the phone and they do not generally do so.

This could be device specific.  My older son uses IM on the phone, because the phone he has (Danger Sidekick) has an excellent IM program.  He does use SMS to contact me though.

IM must interface with one of the 'majors' to work, of course.  There's a constant battle between the independent software creator and folks like MSN, Yahoo and AOL as they 'enhance' their protocols to 'fix' the pesky problem of those independents accessing their IM networks.

Kudos to AgileMessenger.  I know our development team relies on having "allways on" IM, and Agile is one heck of a IM client.