There are 750 million of these cell phone messages sent each day worldwide, nearly all by wireless users outside the United States, according to the GSM Association, a wireless industry group. Teenagers in Japan send so many messages that they have learned to touch-type on a cell phone's cramped keypad. In Ireland, beer-maker Guinness raises messaging to an art form by sponsoring contests for poetry composed on cell phones.
But in the United States, the SMS (Short Messaging Service) has barely caused a stir. Like most other wireless ventures, the text function is mired in the lack of interest the nation's 120 million cell phone owners apparently have toward doing anything other than making a voice call on their phone.
But there are now some signs of life. Some 12 percent of those owning Internet-enabled cell phones in the United States recently told industry watchers A.T. Kearney that they send text messages, a 50 percent increase from January. A.T. Kearney also said this week that the number of people who intend to get a phone capable of sending messages doubled from January.
U.S. carriers say increased demand is prompting them to add more SMS-capable phones to their stable of offerings. For example, AT&T Wireless introduced a fourth SMS phone last week.
U.S. carriers also are hinting at developments that will give messaging a big boost, such as developing technology--some say by the beginning of next year--that will let people send messages to any cell phone in the United States, regardless of the carrier. Currently, that's not possible.
That could kick-start the popularity of text messages, said A.T. Kearney Vice President Mitch Mitchell.
"As e-mail eased the way for many computer users onto the Internet, using SMS could get people more comfortable using their mobile phones for non-voice purposes," he said.
The A.T. Kearney survey suggests that adults are leading the charge in sending messages, which is surprising since most carriers have been trying to sell the service to teenagers who are seen as more likely customers for the service.
The survey found that the number of people between the ages of 35 and 54 were sending 20 percent more short messages in June than in January. Those 55 years old and older sent 15 percent more short messages during the same time period, while use by teenagers actually declined about 11 percent.
Businesses have been looking to take advantage of the text function, another factor that could spur use if consumers could use their cell phone instead of their computer for some business functions.
Sabre, which provides technology for the travel industry and operates the United States' largest ticket reservation system, has introduced a service to send text messages to a traveler's cell phone if there is a flight delay, cancellation or gate change. Insurer Direct Line now sends a text message to policyholders when their insurance is about to expire.
Companies such as British Airways, Guinness and Red Bull also are set to begin using text messages for marketing campaigns.
"Having initially appealed as a cheap and handy communication tool for younger generations, SMS is now being rapidly adopted by adults," said Paul Collins of A.T. Kearney, the lead researcher on the survey.
Verizon Wireless, the nation's biggest wireless carrier, introduced a text messaging service nationwide earlier this year. At the time, it sold two SMS-capable phones. It now sells 10, which is half of all the Verizon handsets on the market. Spokesman Jim Gerace said the company hopes that every phone it sells in the future will be capable of getting text messages.
AT&T Wireless said there are about 1 million text messages sent over its network every day. It added another SMS-capable phone to its line Oct. 2.
Rana Khasnavis, director of individual data offers at AT&T Wireless, believes a recent move by AT&T that let customers download ring tones to their phones has helped spur interest in text messages.
"It got people thinking that they can use their phones in different ways," he said.
"It's going to grow exponentially as more people have text messaging phones," Gerace said. "It only stands to reason."