Sometimes email and Facebook and Twitter and everything else isn’t enough. Sometimes, you need to send an SMS. For many of us, that sometimes is more often than we might think; no wonder unlimited SMS plans are still in vogue most places. When you send SMS messages that turn into a conversation, you can quickly send more messages than you even realize. And even though smartphones keep threatening to make SMS obsolete, the frank truth is that SMS is here to stay until everyone you ever txt has an internet connection on their phone and is using the same messaging app.
So you need to send an SMS, but pulling out your phone to txt while you’re sitting at your computer seems rather odd. Why not put the larger keyboard to use, and just send an SMS from your desktop? There’s a number of apps and sites that let you send free online SMS messages, but there’s one you likely already have open: Gmail. If you didn’t know you could send SMS messages right from Gmail, keep reading to see how you can sta in touch with everyone through Gmail, even if they don’t have email on their phones.
SMS: The Lowest Common Denominator of Mobile Communications
It’s 2012, and SMS still seems almost as important as ever. Blackberry’s BBM has attracted many of the most txt-happy users around the world, while Apple’s now entered the game with iMessages, their own take on free mobile messaging. But SMS seems like its here to stay. It’s relatively cheap, simple to use, and works on any phone. Whether you’ve got an old dumbphone or the latest smartphone, there’s 2 things they have in common: they can make and receive voice calls, and they can send and receive SMS txt messages.
Come to think of it, it’s sort-of like email for mobile devices. The best thing about email is that it works everywhere: whether you have an iCloud or Gmail or Yahoo email account, or even your own self-hosted email server on your own domain, you can send and receive emails to and from any email address on any email service, anywhere. SMS is the same: it doesn’t matter what carrier or mobile OS you’re running, SMS just works. That’s why I think it’ll be a very long time, if ever, before both of these are fully replaced by another service, simply because most services that try to replace email or SMS messages require a certain app, service, OS, device, network, or something else. Email and SMS just work because they work everywhere, no matter what the recipient is using.
Perhaps that makes SMS in Gmail a perfect match. The world’s favorite email service, sending messages to the world’s most popular devices. For free (almost).
Somehow, SMS is Chat, but Email isn’t
So SMS in Gmail it is. You’re ready to send an SMS. Just hit Compose, and write it out like an email, right? Nope. SMS is baked right into Gmail nowadays, but it’s built into Gmail chat on the left side. Now, Gmail already of course treats emails as conversations, and Chat and SMS are conversations, albeit with shorter messages, but … whatever. With Facebook mixing chat and Messages, and Gmail saving Chat logs in an email-type screen, sooner or later everyone’s going to realize that they’re all the same, and there’s no need to sperate them. For now, though, you’ll just need to enter your friend’s phone number in Gmail’s chat box on the left, then select Send SMS.
You can’t send SMS messages to shortcodes, though, like Twitter’s 40404 number. If you need to send a txt to enter a contest, or want to use an SMS enabled web app, you’ll need to do that from a normal mobile phone. Gmail only works for sending normal txts to your friends and colleagues (and enemies, I guess).
Now, Gmail will ask you for your contact’s name, and will want you to select the country your contact’s phone is in. Gmail works on a large number of carriers around the world, including the ones most people I know in both Thailand and the US use, but you still might want to check their list to be sure. Click Save, and you’re ready to start sending SMS messages through Gmail.
You’ll see a new chat popover in the bottom left of Gmail, which looks just like a normal chat box in Gmail. Just type in what you’re wanting to say and hit enter, and your txt will be sent immediately. I tested it out today with my personal mobile phone number in Thailand, and the message came to my phone so quickly after hitting enter, I was amazed. The message came in as a normal txt, with my Gmail email address printed underneath so it’d be obvious who it’s from. Do note, though, that the SMS messages are sent from Gmail directly, so if your phone groups txts from the same number as the same conversation, it might get confusing when multiple people txt you from Gmail.
Gmail gives every account 50 SMS credits, and then adds 5 credits back to your account every time you receive a reply to your txts, up to a max of 50. So, while Gmail SMS is free, you could run the whole way out of txt credits if the people you’re txting don’t reply to your txt. Of course, you could always send a txt to your own phone from Gmail, and then reply to it yourself to get extra credits. That will, of course, cost whatever you usually pay for sending txt messages. If you happen to be wordy in your txts, either from Gmail or replying back, don’t worry: Gmail works perfectly with double-length (or longer) txt messages.
Mobile conversations, tied to your browser
And replying to txts received from Gmail works great, I should add. Once I received the txt from Gmail, I replied from my phone and it showed up in Gmail almost instantly again. The SMS messages will be sent from a local number operated by Gmail, so replying to the txt costs you the same as a normal local txt (or doesn’t cost anything extra if you have a unlimited or metered plan with txt credits available). And since you can send messages around the world, this is a great way to internerally txt for free. Receiving and replying to txts from Gmail doesn’t cost any extra, even if your friend sent you a Gmail SMS from another country. I use this to SMS with my sister in the US while I’m in Thailand, and it’s worked great so far.
Back on the computer with Gmail open, you’ll get a toast notification when the message comes in, if you have them enabled in your browser. You’ll also see the message as a conversation in chat, just like you would with normal chats. And you can find your old txts under the Chats label in Gmail, and can also dig them up via search.
If only it could be…
Interestingly, of course, you can’t usually SMS from Gmail on your mobile device. I was able to do it from an iPad with my useragent set as a desktop browser, but by default, Gmail on a tablet or smartphone won’t let you send SMS messages. But then, if you have a modern smartphone, you could just use Google Talk to chat instead of sending txts. There’s still no perfect solution to universal messaging, other than perhaps email, but Gmail does close the gap a bit for SMS.
Sending SMS messages from Gmail might not be something you want to do every day, but it’s sure nice to have the option. If you’ve never put it to use before, feel free to give it a try. Somehow, it still feels amazing to get Gmail working with an old dumbphone via SMS, even while a smartphone beside it is getting push notifications of the latest news and tweets. SMS is still a part of our mobile landscape, and may well be for quite some time, so it’s nice to get to use it right from Gmail.