The Text Big Thing: U.S. teens joining cell phone text message craze

Thursday, January 31st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

You could call Jackie Snyders a bit of a cell phone junkie, though you won't see her constantly holding one to her ear.

She's one of a growing number of American teens helping to usher in a form of high-tech communication already popular in Europe and Asia _ text messaging.

The teen-ager from suburban Denver discovered the feature recently, and now uses her cell phone keypad to punch in and send quick messages to her best friend and parents _ no talking required. Her new habit helped build up a $300-plus phone bill last month.

``My mom wasn't too happy,'' admits Jackie, who's since cut back a bit on the messages, which cost her 5 cents each to send. The first 50 she receives each month are free, but after that they also are 5 cents apiece.

Heather Mazursky, a 15-year-old from New Rochelle, N.Y., has started text messaging her friends, too.

Even though using cell phones during school is not allowed, she says many students silently send text messages to buddies in other classes. She recently sent one, on the sly, while watching a movie in English class.

``But I pay attention when I'm supposed to,'' she says.

Wireless experts agree that text messaging, also called SMS for ``Short Message Service,'' is catching on in this country.

Officials at Cingular Wireless, for example, say they've seen text message traffic increase 450 percent in just the last six months. And many industry surveys have found that teens are, by far, the most common users of the service.

``They have an openness to new things, and they have a burning need to communicate,'' says David Levy, a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who left to found a company called Digit Wireless.

Levy has created a ``Fastap'' telephone keypad with small, raised letter buttons surrounding bigger number keys _ thereby allowing users to make selections even faster than on a traditional touch-tone keypad.

Besides cell phones, text messages also can be sent from computers and some pagers. Filled with abbreviations and phonetic spellings as short cuts, messages can say anything from ``hi, wot r u doing?'' to ``ILU'' (I love you).

Cara Battaglini, a 25-year-year-old Washington resident, uses text messaging in loud bars and restaurants. That way, she says she avoids the embarrassment of having to shout into her cell phone, ``You're breaking up! Call me later!''

Instead, if she wants to tell a friend to meet her _ say, at a favorite bar called the Mad Hatter _ she types in, ``we're eating - have 2 meet joe at 10, see you at the hatter at 11. k?''

Industry experts say text messaging caught on quicker in Europe and Asia than in America, partly because text messaging is often cheaper there than cell phone calls. Also, unlike many U.S. services, messages there can be sent between cell phones from different service providers (though many expect the American system to change, eventually).

The practice has become so popular with British youth that admissions officials at Bradford University in West Yorkshire sent a text message to potential students last August, wishing them good luck on their college placement exams: ``Hoping 4 gr8 results Thursday :-) frm bfd uni.''

Text messages also have occasionally helped in emergencies. Last year, a dozen British tourists were rescued from a boat off Bali after they sent a text message all the way to England.

Companies worldwide are coming up with more uses for text messages as their market grows.

Upoc, a New York-based firm, is creating ``mobile communities'' _ for example, a Madonna fan club _ that receive text messages as a group.

While experts agree that text messaging is clearly most popular with teens, Upoc's marketing director Andrew Pimentel says, ``I think you're going to find a sort of trickle up.''

He and his colleagues envision the day when pharmaceutical companies will message patients to remind them to take their medication _ and then track their responses.

But that's down the road. Right now, some people are still just figuring out how to decipher their messages.

Liz Miller, a 29-year-old Mountain View, Calif., resident, was perplexed the first time a colleague sent abbreviated text to her cell phone.

``I even looked at it upside down,'' she says. ``I had to call and ask what in the heck it said.''

So she now has a simple rule: no abbreviations.

``If you don't use whole words,'' she tells potential text messagers, ``I don't read it.''