As I type this I’m driving in I-90 East through somewhere near Madison, Wisconsin (I’m in the passenger seat), finally able to access the internet for the first time in 2 days. We started our trip in Salt Lake City, Utah where I live and have since driven through most of Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana. The withdrawals were setting in, yes, but I’ve learned a lot over the previous days – the Internet is advancing but most people still do not have Internet!
I realized what a terrible state we are in when on Wednesday we were visiting Mount Rushmore and in front of our eyes, rappellers from Greenpeace began to descend down and hang a sign protesting Obama’s position on Global Warming. I had my telephoto lens and SLR with me so I immediately began snapping pictures of the entire event as it unfolded and recording video on my iPhone. I had a problem however – there was no Internet at Mount Rushmore. No Wifi. No Edge. No 3G. Evidently there may have been a connection from some other service, since supposedly Greenpeace livestreamed the event from Ustream, but I have no idea what. I was dead in the water to be able to report what was happening. I was able to call my contact at a local Utah news station to report the news (ironically they probably had the news before South Dakota even had it), but I had no way of getting them any images or video of the event as it was unfolding. It wasn’t until 3 hours later that I was finally able to find a store with a connection I could use. However, what was the first thing I did? I SMS’d a Tweet to Twitter (a few, actually) telling the world about what was happening. I also called Cinch, and recorded my voice thoughts of the event – those went out to FriendFeed and Twitter.
Global Warming aside, I think President Obama has other things to consider as well. One of the initiatives he is striving for during his Presidency is the ability for every American, everywhere, to have access to broadband Internet. It’s an interesting initiative, begging the question whether Americans actually have “rights” to have Internet access. However I think there’s one better Initiative President Obama needs to consider that will help towards this cause: Businesses should be encouraged to adopt alternative communications platforms that take up much less bandwidth such as SMS, MMS, and Voice. That’s right – we need to take a step back before we can take a step forward.
Others may argue, but one of the major reasons Twitter has been successful has been due to the support of SMS as a publishing and communications platform. One message of “follow soandso” to 40404 and you have updates coming straight to your phone, no registration necessary, no internet necessary, and just one number anyone has to remember. It’s a powerful concept, and while not used by most people, it has enabled people to post “earthquake!” to Twitter, collaborate and organize forest fires in the middle of nowhere, report political unrest and more. It’s how I was able to be the first person to report on Mount Rushmore’s protest on Wednesday. This is what brought the media to Twitter, which is what inspired others to join, and even brought Oprah to Twitter. It’s the information and quality of information that can be delivered, worldwide, which has made them successful – that would not be near as effective without SMS as a simple medium to publish that information when internet is not available.
My first suggestion is for President Obama: We need more measures to make SMS and MMS more affordable for businesses to integrate. It is currently too expensive, without financing, for startups to afford SMS integration into their startup. It’s one reason Twitter removed the previously popular “track” service which allowed you to receive updates via SMS when people Tweeted various keyword criteria. It’s why Twitter has completely removed SMS service in many other countries. It’s why hardly any other competitor to Twitter has been able to integrate SMS at all.
We need tax breaks for people that choose to integrate these “simpler services”. The companies that provide these communication mediums should also receive tax breaks and incentives for reducing the price. Perhaps the government needs to step in a little bit on the costs. In addition, the public needs to be educated of these incentives. Startups should know the potential numbers they could reach by enabling such simpler services in addition to their more broadband-appropriate offerings.
Now I have a suggestion for the startups: Consider integration with SMS, MMS, and even voice. Some times the numbers may not be so obvious, but if you’re trying to provide information to the masses, the best way to get the quality posts may be through non-internet posting mediums.
Recently Robert Scoble wrote about some stats shared by Thomas Hawk about Twitter and Facebook growing, but FriendFeed remaining stagnant. Let’s lay aside the argument that I don’t think any of the three are even competitors. I think the number one step FriendFeed could take right now that would increase their traffic, reduce the growth of the other two, and put them ahead, is to integrate some of these simpler services. The media will never join unless they can get the “earthquake” and “fire” and political unrest stories they’re getting from Twitter right now. Many of those posts can’t happen if there is no non-internet form of communication.
In addition, imagine if I could send e-mail via SMS? Now, I may not want to have it on all day but what if I could at least send a quick e-mail when my internet is not working but I do have a cell phone plan? A simple SMS ought to do. Services like Gmail and Yahoo and Hotmail could all provide such a service, and open up to a much wider worldwide audience. I remember in Thailand in various towns much of the community not having internet without having to go to the local University to get it. Guess what? They all still had cell phones.
There’s a void in the world right now. It exists in a large part of our nation, in fact, and I think outside of Silicon Valley circles we often forget that. It’s time to step back just a bit and be sure we’re accommodating those without internet access in our startups as well as those who have it.