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Germans are world SMS champions

8 April 2004

BERLIN – It’s 10 minutes past midnight at Berlin’s trendy 90 Degrees Club and the place is jumping. But not for long.

At 20 minutes past midnight, a well-known fashion model and her coterie of hangers-on heads for the exit with the club manager frantically scuttling after her to ask her why she is leaving so early.

“Oh, I just got a text-message on my mobile saying the really big party tonight is happening elsewhere,” she says.

Within minutes, mobiles are beeping and chirping throughout the club and patrons are heading en masse for the exits.

Though little used in America and many other countries, SMS is hugely popular in Europe and parts of Asia. And Germans are the acknowledged world’s champions when it comes to texting.

A survey by the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) recently showed Germans send a whopping 200 million messages a year, which was nearly three times as many as the Finns, in second place at 75 million or Britons at 70 million.

In contrast, the United States was not even listed among the top 20 countries.

The 90 Degrees Club incident made headlines in the Berlin press, along with a story about how autobahn police reported the first traffic accident officially attributed to mobile text-messaging.

A woman motorist was barrelling down the high-speed autobahn in the Rhineland recently when she lost control of her vehicle and landed in a ditch. Injured but lucky to be alive, she told officers she had been engrossed in tapping out a text message on her phone when the wreck occurred.

Starting April 1, stiff new fines went into effect nationwide for motorists who phone while driving. They face being fined EUR 50. The only exceptions are for mobiles with speaker-phone adapters that allow the driver to keep both hands on the wheel.

Also, bicyclists and motorbike riders are now liable to fines of EUR 40 if caught phoning and pedalling at the same time.

It is all a reflection of how mobile phones in general, and text messaging in particular, have changed society in Germany.

Text-messaging, also known as the Short Message Service (SMS), is the ability to send and receive text messages to and from mobile telephones. The text can be comprised of words, numbers or an alphanumeric combination of the two. Each short message is limited to 160 characters.

The German penchant for texting may be due in part to the fact that this long-divided country had a patchy telecommunications system until unification in 1990. West Germany had a state monopoly phone system with exhorbitantly high rates while many East Germans had no individual phone service at all, depending on party lines or a shared phone in the hallway of multi-floor apartment blocks.

So, many Germans went from having no phone to having a mobile. And because call rates were still high, many people opted for text- messaging, which costs a flat rate of 20 cents.

Whatever the reason, Germans love text-messaging. Particularly young Germans.

Last summer’s Berlin youth fad was SMS-related – the Flash Mob. Using SMS texting, scores of people would converge on, say, a Berlin department store and start bowing and kissing each other as if they were long-lost friends.

The Flash Mob idea came from New York, Tokyo and London, but it took on a particularly Teutonic form in Berlin, where texting is a way of life.

“Many Germans text each other to the exclusion and no longer actually speak to each other on the phone,” decried Der Spiegel news magazine in a recent report. “In fact, they never speak to each other at all, preferring text messaging to actual face-to-face encounters.”

Quick to latch on to the trend, advertisers and media outlets are catering to the fact that Germans spend more time with their mobiles than in front of the TV – or with their families, for that matter.

Over 70 percent of commercial revenues on youth-oriented TV networks such as MTV Deutschland are SMS-related during certain time slots these days. A commercial break on such channels is a six-minute cavalcade of adverts for phone ring tones, SMS subscription services and SMS dating chat lines.

Major TV networks and the country’s biggest news magazines all offer SMS breaking news services, allowing subscribers to read news on their mobiles even before it breaks on TV or radio.

Der Spiegel, which generates revenue from SMS-related services and advertisements, views the phenomenon with tongue-in-cheek pessimism.

“For generations Germans were known for their steadfastness and punctuality,” the magazine says. “Now we have become a nation of people waiting for a last-minute text message advising us where we’re expected to be half an hour from now.”


Subject: German News