It was not always the case that you could choose from a number of different platforms when sending pictures to your friends or family. Today you can use your preferred choice of messenger, social media channels or even email on your phone. But prior to the introduction of over-the-top rich communication services, the only way to send digital images electronically was using MMS or email, with MMS the sole way to send pictures, graphics, audio and GIFs to mobile phones.
MMS (or multimedia messaging service) is the standard protocol for sending and receiving multimedia messages, via a cellular network, between mobile devices. Built on the same technology as SMS, or short message service, initially MMS were used primarily to send photos from camera-phones. As mobile handset penetration increased and use of SMS and MMS expanded, businesses began sending MMS messages to customers through application-to-person (A2P) MMS gateway platforms. This allows businesses to easily send scannable coupons, voucher codes and images of products.
Adding text messaging capability to mobile phones was an idea conceived in the 1980s, with the first SMS sent in December 1992. From there, short message service centers were created - first in Sweden in 1993, followed closely by the US, Norway and the UK.
After a slow start in the early-mid 1990s, SMS experienced massive growth. In December 2001, GSM reported that 15 billion text messages had been sent that month. 2005 saw 81 billion messages sent in the US alone, and this number increased exponentially until 2011 where 2.3 trillion SMS messages were sent.
Being able to send text-based messages on the go proved to be very popular, in a time that mobile handset adoption was also on the rise. Naturally, the next idea would be to expand the amount and type of content that could be sent to mobile handsets. Leveraging SMS technology to create MMS, a new format of messaging was born. This then paved the way for new text messaging methods.
The creation of MMS was a natural evolution from SMS messaging. It essentially sends an SMS with a link to the multimedia content, opened using your internet connection:
The main difference between SMS and MMS is in the content that is being sent; generally SMS is purely text content (also simply referred to as ‘texting’). Conversely, MMS uses rich content like images, audio and GIFs in the message content.
Messages that are longer than 160 characters get sent as multiple message parts. So for example, a chatty customer who writes an 800 character message, would be charged 5 message parts. The SMS is sent in those 5 chunks - years ago, they would be received as 5 messages, but most handsets now are able to piece the whole message back together to recreate the message as sent.
In contrast, MMS does not have a character limit. While in theory, one could send an MMS with infinite characters, most MMS providers do put a limit on the number of characters sent - often 1000 characters or 300kb.
While many mobile carriers offer plans with unlimited SMS and MMS (essentially making them free with your cellular plan), generally if you check the pricing for SMS and MMS, MMS is more expensive.
As mobile messaging matured, new ways to send text and multimedia messages were launched. Whatsapp became a popular way to send multimedia messages all around the world. The ability to quickly share rich content from Facebook made Facebook Messenger an easy option for sending multimedia messages.
The main difference between MMS and many of the existing rich communications options, is that the latter tend to run over an internet connection, rather than relying on the cellular network. They require downloading an additional application to your mobile handset before using, while MMS is the native messaging tool used by handsets.
Initially these new over-the-top applications were enticing because with an internet connection, you could send unlimited rich messages to your contacts. With Facebook Messenger, you would not even need their phone number to get in touch, just find them on the social network, request to be a friend and you can start messaging straight away.
Cellular carriers have made SMS and MMS messaging essentially free with their plans (unlimited messages), which has allowed equal footing with rich messaging applications. However, as these over the top applications evolve to give new functionality and better user experience, the humble MMS has struggled to keep up.
Thus in 2007 a new protocol was built to eventually replace SMS and MMS, called Rich Communication Services (RCS). RCS was promised to be the next big thing in mobile messaging, but the uptake has been slow. In 2018 Google threw its weight behind RCS, getting many carriers to support their RCS Chat. On handsets, Google and Samsung handsets can support RCS chat, however if the recipient does not, the message reverts to SMS. However, with Apple holding out on their own RCS platform, it could be some time before RCS takes over as the native application for mobile messaging.
While MMS is still a very popular tool for sending multimedia messages, despite new messaging tools being readily available on mobile handsets. However, its future could be quite short if RCS Chat gets readily adopted as successor to the humble SMS and MMS. It really all depends on whether Apple will get on board, or the original SMS/MMS technology will continue to connect RCS enabled handsets with the rest of the mobile phone users.