Saturday, August 20, 2016

SMS messaging to small groups: Apple's App Store comes up empty. Again.

It may require federal legislation, but someday text messaging services will interoperate.

Today, however, we have cruddy old SMS, held in the fierce claws of Verizon and AT&T. SMS, which has a maximum of ten recipients. SMS, which carriers have kept alive by bundling unlimited SMS with data services. SMS, which is definitely not free (in the US) for sending services. SMS, which RCS  (aka “joyn”) has failed to replace for about five years — because there’s money on the table.

SMS, which has a decent notification framework even on Android phones [1]. SMS, which is the only thing that is guaranteed to work with every member of a sports team. SMS, which is a key feature of TeamSnap ($8/month — compare to $50/month for many commercial SMS services).

Bottom line - SMS is lousy, but we need to work with it. Our Minnesota NICA mountain biking team is probably going to sign up for TeamSnap for the SMS service alone. The only real alternatives I know of are free GroupMe and iOS or Android apps that turn a list of numbers into a series of sub-10 member SMS texts that are covered by the standard US Carrier SMS bundle and sent as my personal text. That seems easy to do, and unsurprisingly there are a zillion of these apps. How can one pick a decent one?

I started by thinking about what’s important:

  • A clear business model. I avoid apps that hide how they make money. Ideally a simple cash payment.
  • Easy entry of numbers - copy/paste into a text field would be fine.
  • Error handling - notify which texts don’t make it.
  • Last update within past 12 months.
  • A web site with product documentation
  • Decent App Store review numbers in past year (allowing for the usual fake reviews)
  • Android version nice to have
  • US centric - our mobile market is weird. An international solution is unlikely to meet our needs.
From the App Store I started with
  • AtomPark SMS: no reviews
  • Group SMS!: $1, 110 reviews
  • Group Text!: $3, 2,139 reviews. Last updated 9/2014.
  • EasyGroup: $5, 427 reviews, not clear what it does
  • Text 2 Group: $3, 1,885 reviews. Last updated 5/2016
My initial screen left me with Group Text! and Text 2 Group. So I read some reviews. 
Text 2 Group requires iMessage be disabled prior to use and has no support or web site. Disabling and reenabling iMessage is a pain in the ass on iOS (turning off data/wifi is easy though and probably has same effect). It’s also rather hard to know what this app actually does.
Group Text! has not been updated for 2 years but it has a web site: Which says that the manual for version 3 “is coming soon”; version 3.4 was released 9/2014. I reviewed the site and support documents — it’s pretty much unreadable. This is a dead app.
At the end of the day Apple’s vast app store yielded … nothing. Even basic quality screens eliminated every product sold.
This is probably a good place to mention that Apple’s App Store business model has been broken for years — and that’s a sign of how poorly Tim Cook is doing.

See also 

[1] I had to get an Android phone for my special needs smartphone book project. I was amazed what a mess the carriers have made of Android messaging. Google’s deal with the Verizon devil has a price.

Update 8/20/2016: On @jws points out that SMS messaging to groups can be done by using carrier email to SMS gateways. The form varies by carrier, AT&T processes email of the form This scales to a large number of users. 

I think some people block these email to SMS services; I think I do.

TeamSnap uses true SMS for the US and Canada.

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