Thought experiment: A world without SMS

Rural South Africa, January 2008

Imagine a world without SMS.

What would have been the situation in the world today if the man who invented the short messaging system used for text based communication by mobile phones across the world had decided to patent his invention?

Its uptake would have been far slower, the cost higher and we are unable to evaluate whether it would have been the cash cow for telco’s serving the lower income markets across the developing world that it is today.

Taking the thought a step further – would it have influenced healthcare, education, income generation, banking and financial services to the degree it has, or even given rise to the basic crisis information management tools that have already made a name for themselves in disaster zones around the world?

This thought experiment emerged from a conversation on whether open innovation – that is, sharing one’s works freely, was better or worse than taking the traditional “protect intellectual property with a patent” approach. My conversation partner, the former editor of a leading business journal and active in the national innovation debate here in Finland, said that the inventor of the SMS had not pursued the “patent and protect his invention” approach and thus had not made millions off his creation.

I turned around and said that yes, I agree, but I didn’t know of any other inventor in today’s world who could claim to have changed the lives of billions of people for the better.

The choice, is always, yours.

NB: I could link to a number of initiatives, applications and programmes that are based on the SMS but instead offer this overview of the recent book,  SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa for a flavour of the reach and influence of basic text.

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