Cell phone text messaging has exploded in popularity in the last few years overseas. Lovers use it to flirt; children to bully; sports fans to get scores. Employers have fired workers by text message and even the pope uses it to deliver a daily thought.
In fact, the short messaging service, or SMS, generated $15 billion in revenue in western Europe last year, according to analysts at Strand Consult of Denmark.
Hungry for new revenue sources in a harshly competitive market, U.S. cell phone carriers are working hard to get their customers to type text with their phone keypads. One set of TV ads shows teens exchanging tart messages while standing right next to each other.
Getting Americans interested has been an uphill struggle, yet there are signs of a warming.
U.S. phones sent 1 billion text messages in December, up sharply from 253 million a year earlier, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.
This spring, text messaging was boosted by a tie-in with the wildly popular "American Idol" TV show. Sponsor AT&T Wireless allowed subscribers to message their votes, tallying up more than a million in the first 10 weeks of the competition.
"We're really trying to make SMS a real business," says AT&T Wireless spokesman Jeremy Pemble.
Still, the first time Synge Maher sends messages to people in the United States, it's often the first time they've ever received one.
The 27-year-old New Yorker exchanges sweet nothings like "TOTALLY MAD 4 U" with her boyfriend — a convenient and cheap way to keep in touch, she says.
She started "texting" after visiting London and seeing how almost everyone in their 20s and 30s was doing it.
"They think it's so cool," she says. She finds messaging practical when she doesn't have the time to talk or doesn't want to raise her voice.
Maher used to have problems sending messages to friends who use other cell phone carriers, one of the industry's big problems.
It has only been possible for about a year to send text messages between U.S. carriers. Before that, communication was largely restricted to other phones on the same carrier.
While the carriers blamed differing technologies for the barrier, others have suggested that each of them unsuccessfully tried to corner the market.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world was quickly embracing the technology, sending more than 1 billion text messages a day last year, according to analysts at Telecom Trends International and Netsize.
In Europe, text message voting is a must for any reality TV show. In Norway, a country of 4.3 million people, an equivalent of "American Idol" received more than 3.3 million SMS votes this spring, according to Strand Consult of Denmark.
Of course, Europeans can vote for TV shows no matter what their carrier. AT&T Wireless only allowed their own subscribers to vote by text message, but other shows, like "Nashville Star" on USA Network, are opening up voting to multiple carriers.
Western European media companies and TV broadcasters pulled in $82 million from SMS voting in 2002, Strand Consult says. U.S. media companies have taken note. They also have a pent-up desire to sell data services — news, sports scores and the like — to wireless subscribers.
Analyst Charles Golvin at Forrester Research says a big problem for U.S. carriers is that e-mail and instant messaging have become quite entrenched, and tapping out messages on a phone keypad seems clumsy by comparison.
Some carriers, including Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile, are trying to piggyback on the popularity of AOL Instant Messenger by allowing it to exchange messages with their cell phones.
Another obstacle to text messaging is that U.S. operators are also charging more for it. By contrast, SMS caught on in Europe because it was cheap.
Voice calls are much more expensive in Europe than in the United States and plans often don't include free minutes, so text messages at 20 cents each are an attractive option.
In the United States, most people have more airtime minutes than they use each month.
Golvin says the biggest obstacle is that Americans aren't used to using their phones for anything but talking.
"There's a big behavioral shift that needs to happen," he says. "Yes, I see it grow, but I don't think we'll see numbers on par with Europe. I don't think we'll see billions of messages on Valentine's Day."