When ICQ, the instant messaging service owned by AOL/Time Warner, which has more than 100 million subscribers, launched mobile instant messaging, it also published the news that the service is available to over 250 mobile networks.
Normally, for such a content provider to reach all those networks it would have to sign SMS roaming agreements with each and every one of the various telcos. Or it would have had to a deal with the likes of Materna or Netsize, and even then it would not have achieved that kind of coverage.
But ICQ did not sign an agreement with one of these third party service providers. It enabled what appears to be cross-network messaging on a global scale, by signing a single contract with South African mobile network operator, MTN.
How is MTN, which is an operator with a GSM license and an interconnect to only two other telcos, able to support ICQ's mobile instant messaging service on a global basis?
The answer is that it acquired a new technical platform from Logica to enable its subscribers and corporate customers to communicate with any other SMS application, no matter where the application resides or which operator is offering it.
Following the ICQ announcement, Microsoft MSN Hotmail announced that it too would offer a mobile notification and email support, also on a global basis. It signed a single agreement with MIGway, a startup formed by TDC Mobile International, formerly TeleDanmark, whose network holdings include mobile networks in Austria and Switzerland, and CMG Wireless.
The technical breakthrough
It's no coincidence that both of these announcements come together. Logica, CMG Wireless, as well as Compaq, SEMA, and a few other major vendors in the mobile network infrastructure market that don't want to go public yet, are all offering the same cross-network SMS solution based on a patented solution from a tiny software firm based in Switzerland, called bmd wireless AG.
"The platform we developed for CMG, Sema, and others to sell, enables any mobile user from any wireless network in the world to reach an application. For the first time mobile network operators and ISPs are able to offer global (as opposed to local) SMS-based applications and services," says Christopher Tiensch, CEO bmd wireless AG.
Actually this is true only within GSM networks, as the Swiss company has yet to commercially release its products that enable interworking between TDMA and CDMA networks.
Currently, GSM mobile phone users are able to roam and terminate voice calls wherever a roaming agreement is in place, and in most cases they can also send SMS from person to person across networks. But person-to-application (or man-to-machine) and vice versa, that is, two way, interactive SMS, was just not possible. For example, if you wanted to check the popular Swiss train schedule information that Swisscom offers via SMS during a trip to Amsterdam, you could not.
While the commercial side of cross network agreements, such as the one between ICQ and MTN, are fairly straightforward thanks to roaming agreements, the technical side is a bit of a nightmare.
That is because internetworking standards for SMS are not defined. This lack of a technical standard became a market opportunity for the likes Germany's Materna or Netsize to become neutral SMS transfer agents for mobile operators in the UK, Scandinavia, Germany and parts of East Asia. They were able to offer cross-network access to certain SMS services on competing mobile networks, usually within national borders.
The reason for a lack of standard goes back to the original vision of SMS as one way messaging from network operator to customer for call set up and paging services, and not the two-way, cross network, multi-media, messaging platform, which it has become.
"The members of the GSM MoU were never able to agree standards for cross-network SMS because of SS7 security issues," explains Simon Buckingham, consultant and author at Mobile Lifestreams Ltd in the UK. Now that operators have cordoned off their private information from the SMS communications and installed the equivalent of Internet firewalls and security solutions SMS can be more open.
bmd wireless AG's solution involves deploying an independent platform that sits between the mobile user and the SMSC, which in turn is connected to the computer running the application. It replicates mobile network functionality with its own Home Location Register (HLR) and Mobile Switching Centers (MSC).
Impact on the market
The impact on the market is quite significant. There are more than 260 companies developing SMS applications that require seamless SMS interworking, according to a list that Logica publishes on its web site. These could all benefit from a global, interactive SMS service.
BMD wireless says the number is much higher because he sees this as the platform that enables any messaging application running on the Web. " The missing connectivity to enable mobile Internet has been missing. With this development a mobile Internet is now possible," says the Texas-born Tiensch.
"We saw the market opportunities immediately, but totally underestimated the potential and value of such a product, "says bmd wireless COO, Brian Rueger. "After we started talking with major players in the industry during the GSM World Congress, the interest in bmd wireless and its technical solutions was overwhelming."
"Owners of content, in this case ring tones, horoscopes, logos and newer types of SMS only need to link up with MIGway's mobile messaging platform in order to reach all 350 million or so GSM users in Europe," says CMG's Arie Kuijt.
Expect to see the likes of VIVA or MTV make deals with single operators to advertise one phone number across Europe for viewers to access a new ring tone or concert information service. Or maybe the Wall Street Journal online will offer premium content, like a paper on venture capital and nanotechnology as a pay per view document, offering users the chance to pay for it using a Premium SMS (higher priced, depending on content, than basic SMS) rather than just credit cards.
"Using SMS as a micropayment solution is not hot yet, but it will be in a year or so," says Strand, who just returned from delivering a briefing to Microsoft executives and developers in Seattle.
Whether or not the SMS will emerge as a long-searched for solution for micropayments or not, is open.
What we do know is that this technical development makes two-way, interactive, global SMS possible and will go some way towards bringing some of those early visions of the mobile Internet and m-commerce a little closer to reality.
Valerie Thompson is a freelance business and technology journalist, specialized in emerging networking and computing topics. She lives in Zurich, Switzerland.