Back to the future: Twitter’s all SMS in the UK

So starting yesterday, Twitter is back in the SMS game in the UK after an eight-month lay-off. Will it make any difference – or has Twitter already moved on from its text messaging roots?

Twitter’s original model was based around allowing people to send and receive updates to and from all their friends from their mobile phone while on the go, so when Twitter had to pull their SMS service from the UK back in August 2008 it looked like a body blow for the still-fledgling online service. I’d only just been on Twitter for a couple of weeks at the time – and hadn’t even got around to using the SMS feature – and I remember distinctly thinking “So, I joined just in time for the service to implode?”

That’s because at the time, SMS seemed so core to the Twitter model it was hard to imagine it without. Twitter’s 140 character status updates have always been distinctly text message-like, and a large part of the appeal was being able to use the service to “mass broadcast” text messages to a whole group of your friends at the same time. It was mobile instant messaging, in other words.

That basic concept still exists in the US and Canada, but the different billing model of telecoms companies in the UK meant that Twitter was haemorrhaging money by producing these free SMS updates to people’s followers. Considering Twitter then (and now) didn’t have a revenue model worth two cents, the prospect of having to pay out huge sums (up to $1000 per user according to some reports) so people could update their friends on their lunch habits was truly horrific. Hence the axe swung and the SMS service was rescinded overnight (although it’s still been possible to send a text to Twitter to update one’s status on the go.)

It should have crippled Twitter’s expansion plans in the UK, but in fact in the first few weeks it seemed to have almost no effect. People already addicted to Twitter simply readjusted, and apps for mobile smartphones such as TwitterBerry, Twitterrific, TwitterFon and Tweetie flooded into the market offering a far richer experience than plain text messages ever could. Far from being the end of Twitter in the UK, it almost seemed as though (for smartphone users at least) this was a radical upgrade to the experience.

And then SMS-less Twitter use simply exploded even without text: take a look at this TechCunch graph of usage and you’ll see that after an initial flat period in August following the SMS withdrawl, the takeup figures then went out of control. Last month, HitWise UK reported that Twitter became one of the 100 most visited websites in the UK for the first time. All of it without the SMS functionality.

And now, just as abruptly as it disappeared, SMS functionality resumed last night – at least for Vodafone users, although there are rumours that other networks including O2 and T-Mobile also doing deals in the next few days, which is surprising as you’d have thought that the exclusivity of the arrangement would have been worth one telecom making a deal for given the potential customer appeal. So once again, as it was a year ago, receiving SMS tweets will be free for all Vodafone customers while outgoing SMS tweets will come out of customers’ text message bundles.

I’m not a Vodafone user any more (I left the service last year after a minor problem with service turned into major exasperation at their lack of any kind of customer service) and so the current announcement of SMS restoration doesn’t affect me. But if O2 do a similar deal in the days and weeks ahead, I’m wondering: will I really care? Would I use it?

I’d certainly try it. Well, you have to, don’t you? Until you’ve actually tried something for yourself there’s no telling how useful or not you’ll find it. Twitter itself is a perfect example of that, something that you look at from the outside and wonder what on earth the appeal of it could possibly be; and then after a week of using it you suddenly find it’s become as addictive as crack cocaine. And even then, you still can’t figure out why.

It would certainly be useful to know instantly that someone’s sent me a reply rather than have to consciously use the iPhone apps to login and check. But then, I do this so regularly and automatically that I could in some circles be classified a push notification service in my own right (who needs iPhone 3.0?)

But this isn’t about me, or about any of the current users of the Twitter service, all of whom have evolved and adapted. No, this deal to bring back SMS is about the massive as-yet untapped and unconverted audience out there who haven’t been lured over to Twitter-heroin, including who typically don’t have smartphones that can compensate for the lack of SMS integration: the teenagers who genuinely do live by text message alone. If Twitter can tap into that market with the same zeal that they have invaded the niche market in the last six months, then current spectacular growth will look quaint and whimsical by comparison in a year’s time.

That’s why it was vital for Twitter’s new business development director – who is charged with creating a viable business model for Twitter – to get this SMS deal done in the UK as soon as possible, because to miss the boat and not cement on the current high profile and massive growth would be to throw away all opportunity of making Twitter a lasting business success. Already you wonder if the “It” moment for Twitter hasn’t peaked and passed, such that the hyper-cool texting teens haven’t already tried and dismissed SMS-less Twitter and moved on to the Next Big Thing. If they have – can they be lured back?

It’s a big moment for Twitter, and the irony is that this step change is all about a brand new feature … that we had and took for granted a year ago. It’s almost as sly a move as Apple ‘reinventing’ cut and paste as a brand new feature of iPhones!

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