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RIP, SMS? Text messaging on decline in Mideast

Number of texts sent set to fall for first time as regional users choose services like WhatsApp and Skype

Ben Flanagan

Published: Updated:

Text messaging was once a ‘GR8’ way to communicate – but now it seems people are sharing their ‘LOL’s by other means.

The humble SMS is on the decline in the Middle East region as more people turn to cheaper ways to chat, according to data from Informa Telecoms & Media obtained by Al Arabiya News.

This year will mark the first time in smartphone history that regional telecoms firms’ revenues from SMS use will decline, as more people choose to send free messages, pictures and emoticons via applications like WhatsApp and Skype.

Matthew Reed, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media in Dubai, said this year will mark a “turning point” in the region.

“According to our forecasts, SMS revenues for the Middle East peaked in 2013 and will decline over the coming few years,” he said.

Regional telecoms companies made a staggering $4.3 billion from SMS use in 2013 – but that is forecast to decline by about 25 percent to $3.2bn by 2018, according to Informa.

Conversely, data usage – which apps like WhatsApp and Skype rely on – is expected to rise by 180 percent over the same period.

“One of the main factors behind the expected fall in SMS revenues is that people are expected to increasingly use internet messaging services like WhatsApp instead,” said Reed.

“SMS revenues are expected to fall over the forecast period, though that will be more than offset by the strong growth in other data revenues.”

Informa’s forecasts are based on telecoms use in the six GCC countries, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen.

The trend in the Middle East mirrors that in other global markets. According to figures from accounting firm Deloitte, the number of SMS sent in the UK fell for the first time in 2013. There were 145 billion texts sent in the country last year, a decline of 7 billion on 2012.

Analyst Thomas Kuruvilla, managing partner at the consultancy Arthur D Little in the Middle East, agreed that the same trend was being seen in this region.

“I am 100 percent sure that the volume of SMS will drop because of the applications like WhatsApp and Skype getting more prominent,” he said.

Kuruvilla pointed to the fact that it is free to send messages, pictures and video on services like WhatsApp. The app also allows users to create group chats, he added.

But will the humble text message die out altogether?

Kuruvilla thinks not. “SMS will never die – it’s impossible,” he said.

Yet other technology experts are not so sure.

Alexander McNabb, director at Spot On communications in Dubai, says he can see the day when we bid ‘RIP’ to the SMS.

“I could see an end to texts, yes,” said McNabb. “[It could take] three to five years for texts not to be part of the telcos’ mainstream revenues, or a key part of our lives.”

McNabb pointed out that the text message probably represents the “the world’s most expensive data” when measured in terms of the cost per byte of data communicated. “Operators are already charging way too much for texts,” he said.

But there could be one use for the SMS that never gets old: calling in sick to work.

“I think we’ll always use text to contact the boss to say you’re ill,” said McNabb.