Texting, once considered little more than an electronic answer to classroom note-passing, is leaving its pimply adolescence with the help of some new smart-phone applications.
Super-charged texting apps are aiming to fill a niche somewhere between e-mail and Twitter, and require only the cell phone in your pocket. The apps promise phone users the power to network groups of friends, classmates or co-workers. The best part? This new-generation of texting is cheap or completely free.
One breakout among these new applications is textPlus, which offers free texting for Apple i-devices and Android smart phones. The trade-off for the free service is you'll have to live with a small ad in the corner of the screen.
TextPlus allows users to set up social groups that, unlike Twitter, can be personally selected from the people in your phone list. Back-and-forth conversations are displayed on screen in a format reminiscent of the old-school chat rooms on AIM.
Though textPlus so far is compatible only with Apple or Android products, owners of lower-tech phones can also join in the community, just without the cool graphics.
The app offers sophisticated communications to the broadest possible demographic, said Drew Olanoff, a spokesman for textPlus developer GOGII. After all, nearly, everyone from an entrepreneur in New Dehli to your Grandpa LaVarr in Manti has a cell phone, right?
"We believe heavily in mobiles," Olanoff says. "Nearly everyone's got one. The real social network is through a phone. It's the network in your pocket."
Because of its efficiency in communicating to groups, Olanoff says textPlus is being used around the country to network "communities" of workers, soccer teams, study groups and even the families of expectant moms.
In addition, some U.S. military members overseas are using textPlus as a way to keep concerned family members scattered around the country informed. "When you're in the military, everyone at home is worried about you," Olanoff says. "With textPlus, a service member can text something what they had for breakfast and let it go. Everyone at home gets the text at once."
Of course, this kind of power, for free, makes texting even more appealing to kids. High school students, to the dismay of teachers and parents, remain the most zealous users of texting for everything from hooking up to feeding answers across the classroom to a stumped pal. With textPlus, a group of buds can quickly negotiate their weekend plans through shared texts.
When developer GOGII surveyed this young market niche, they found that while kids seldom use their cell phone and iPad to take notes in class, about one-in-four have surreptitiously texted an answer to a buddy.
"It's amazing how subtle they can be," says Salt Lake City School District spokesman Jason Olsen. "They can text with one hand while making eye contact with the teacher."
Despite the educational promise of such new technologies, Utah schools don't appear to be on the forefront of experimenting with this teen-friendly communication mode. Many Utah schools ban cell-phone use in classrooms. Beyond a couple coaches who texted student athletes about summer practice sessions, Olsen says he's unaware of classes or teachers using text messages to communicate with students.
Of course, schools might be understandably wary of teacher-to-student texting, after a spate of Utah news reports of teacher sex scandals. In addition, many officials are wary about the practice of sexting, where youths send sexually explicit messages or images to each other.
"Texting can quickly become personal in nature and go over the line," Olsen says. "It's not prohibited, but it is discouraged."