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Attack of the text message leaves 3G and the City strapped for cash

You remember text messages? Ten years ago they were thought to be on the most distant fringe of the great developments confronting the global communications industry. An industry whose real prize was going to be 3G, the third-generation high-speed mobile net surfer and real-time sports reporter. Well, that was what everybody thought, but so far it hasn't worked out that way. Text's short message service (SMS) really took off but 3G ran into difficulties. In fact, bidding for new 3G leases only restarted last week after the last attempted launch in 2003.

Nothing like that happened with SMS, where steady development of the 160-character formula has already transformed the way many people, especially young people, work and spread gossip, make dinner dates or cast a vote for a music video. Of course, all this can be written off as mere entertainment, like gambling, and so it is - up to a point.

But the point is in the numbers of people involved and what it might mean in the long run.

When you first get into the scale of numbers that text messaging is about, you find your fingers trembling. Indeed, when you really get into the numbers provided by GSM, a wireless trade association that didn't exist 10 years ago, you find out that more than 360 billion text messages are sent annually worldwide - that's roughly one billion each day, one for every six people on Earth. At that point it becomes impossible to believe that this is just another pop culture fad, even though it can still be like gambling.

Earlier this year the chief executive of Nokia, the world's biggest mobile phone manufacturer, claimed that there are already 1.7 billion mobile phone users worldwide - 26 per cent of the world's population. There are also more mobile phones than fixed telephones, and wireless technology is growing at six times the rate of traditional telephone use. He went on to predict that the number of mobile users would reach two billion within three years. More importantly for us, he claimed that many countries were leapfrogging fixed voice communications altogether and going directly to mobile telephones. In Australia, for example, estate agents have taken to using the 160-character messaging capability of the mobile to alert would-be buyers to new properties coming on to the market.

But perhaps the best example of an innovative use comes from Hong Kong, where it is reported that salespersons will watch passers-by and have an accomplice offer an instant 10 per cent discount to promisinglooking buyers.

This power-assisted form of ventriloquism may sound comical, or at worst a minor invasion of privacy, but its purpose, or perhaps more accurately its destination, is surely the precursor of bigger things to come. And so it is. In the bigger economic picture, the only place where the enormous mobile telephone network fits is in the army of distance annihilation: an army that breaks down all distances and sooner or later enlists every policy and every invention in its struggle to smash the urbanism of place, the architectural vision of the metropolis and the service of the great databanks.

And what can a few hundred thousand 3G mobiles at £400 a go do to ward off the first probing attacks? Precious little, for the enemy's fifth column is already in the city, selling up the properties that would otherwise have become the bastions and redoubts of the battles still to come.

Freehold commercial buildings have been sold to realise capital gains of nearly £6 billion, while the City rental market remains in steep decline - and this, in the newspapers, is called a record year!

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