Short Message Service (SMS)-capable phones are the most common digital-access devices in the world, with more than 2.5 billion devices sold to date. Unfortunately, much of the great data and functionality based in PC networks has been unavailable to SMS-based phones. Just as a PC can be used as a Web server, this technology enables anyone with a Windows smartphone and a PC to create an SMS server, thereby bridging computer networks with that of SMS. In particular, we are excited about this technology because it enables small organizations such as schools, microfinance organizations, and even a lone IT staff worker to experiment and deploy SMS based applications cheaply. They can build these applications using Visual Studio or Excel. Additionally, this technology does not require that a developer gain permission from the local telephone company. The developer just plugs in a phone and pays for any SMS messages her program generates or receives. Sample applications we expect people to create: Schools can SMS hundreds of parents simply by filling out an Excel spreadsheet. Organizations can make their corporate directories easily available to any employer with an SMS cell phone. Sales representatives can SMS a customer name or number to their company’s SMS server and receive that customer’s ERP information. This is mostly an enabling technology that will help many developers to create SMS applications easily and cheaply. We believe that this platform providing SMS “server sessions” is the first of its kind and will make it easy for developers to create dialogue-based interactions via SMS, essentially enabling people to create interfaces as robust as an iPod UI.
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The growth and usage of SMS on mobiles worldwide is phenomenal; over 40% of the world’s people have an SMS capable phone. Almost a trillion SMS messages were sent in 2006 and the expected revenue from SMS in 2012 is $67 billion Interestingly, even among the 85% of Indian users who are prepaid — with average monthly mobile bills of only $3 (151R) — users on average sent 21 SMSs per month. (source: Portio Research, TRAI Report through Sept 2006).
Additionally, we have witnessed a growing number of interesting SMS-based services. In our own ‘Warana Unwired’ project, Microsoft Research India (MSR India) worked with a 70,000 person sugarcane cooperative to enable their farmers to buy fertilizer, check their payment history, register their land, etc. via SMS and with significant costs savings versus their existing PC kiosk based system. In our work with technology in schools, we saw a consistent need from school administrators to easily and simply send out bulk SMS messages (e.g. SMS all parents “School is cancelled today”) — a need that is likely shared by soccer clubs, friends and businesses everywhere. Additionally, there are many exciting SMS services in enabling informational lookups, e.g. weather and stock look-ups and job bulletin boards in Africa. Finally, as we discussed these scenarios with others, many companies came forward with their own ideas for SMS applications such as directory look-ups where any employee could lookup information on other employees or customer records via SMS.
Thus, given the ubiquity of SMS and rising demand for SMS applications, we at Microsoft Research India have been researching ways to enable organizations of all kinds to connect their interesting PC and Internet applications to SMS capable phones and create new useful SMS based apps. Towards that end, we are very pleased to announce the general availability of our SMS Toolkit, enabling anyone with a PC and a Windows Mobile Phone to run their own SMS server.
Our goal with this release is to enable technology “tinkerers” everywhere easily create and prototype SMS solutions that can be deployed anywhere in the world using local numbers using and widely available, off the shelf components. We believe it is important that these developers can create SMS applications without asking for the permission of any telephone company, buying specialized hardware such as a GSM modem or paying thousands of dollars in setup fees to an SMS-aggregator. Simply, users of the SMS toolkit pay for the SMSs sent and received on their PC-attached mobile phone just as they normally do today on their personal phones. Additionally, we’ve tried to make our programming model as simple as possible too — so simple that for basic scenarios such as bulk message sending and simple information look-up applications, users need only modify an excel file to “build” an application.
It’s our hope that this toolkit spurs many different types of SMS applications and greater experimentation. Anyone can download the toolkit and samples at no cost at www.codeplex.com/smstoolkit and we would love to hear your feedback.
The Microsoft Research India Advanced Development and Prototyping Team