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Google, Orange spread SMS services across Africa

Text messaging will be the foundation of "Google SMS" services that Orange will offer to mobile customers in some African countries. Gmail-SMS chat is the first.

Orange logo

The first world is fixated on smartphones that can handle videoconferencing and first-person shooters, but Google and Orange announced a service today that's geared for a population whose phones only have that most basic of data-transfer abilities, text messaging.

Google and Orange, the mobile arm of France Telecom, announced a partnership today to bring a service called Gmail SMS Chat to four additional countries in Africa--Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea Conakry, and Niger--and to launch it as a trial program in Egypt. The service already is available in Senegal, Uganda, and Kenya, but will reach the new countries in the coming months, the companies said.

Also as part of the "strategic partnership," a lot more is planned for a Google SMS service, but the companies didn't disclose those plans in detail.

"Through the development of SMS-based services that operate on all mobile networks (including GSM), Orange and Google will extend the reach of a wide range of Internet services that were previously limited to smartphone and broadband users (through 3G, CDMA, or WiMax networks) to all Orange mobile customers," Orange said. "Through Google SMS, African mobile customers stand to benefit from a wide range of Google services via SMS."

The specific option that will become available, Gmail SMS Chat, marries Gmail's ability to send SMS (short message service) text messages to mobile phones. With the partnership, Gmail users get a quota of free text messages to use with the service. When they send a text message to an Orange customer and the customer replies, they get five more free messages added to their quota.

The Orange subscribers, of course, must pay for their text messages by whatever terms their mobile plans dictate.

Orange said the service has been popular where it's launched. In Senegal, "uptake exceeded expectations with nearly 700,000 unique users and four million messages sent by SMS in the first six months."