Google opens SMS-to-chat gateway to more African countries

Mobile phone operator Orange is partnering with Google to bring Gmail chat to feature-phone users in five more countries

Google already allows Gmail users to exchange chat messages with mobile phone users via SMS in 23 countries worldwide, but now French mobile phone operator Orange wants to help the search giant extend the service across Africa and the Middle East.

Gmail SMS Chat allows a Gmail user to send short text messages to someone with only a basic mobile phone and no Internet access or Gmail account. The phone owner can also reply to the Gmail user. Phone users pay to send messages, and may also pay to receive them depending on their contract with their operator. The Gmail user pays nothing, although Google does impose a limit on the number of messages that can be sent: each message replied to raises the limit, allowing five new messages to be sent.

Orange and Google have now agreed to extend the reach of the service. The companies are focusing on such an old-tech approach to instant messaging, rather than promoting mobile Internet access because, according to Orange, 62.5 percent of the population in Africa and the Middle East have access to basic mobile phone service, but only 1.4 percent have broadband Internet access.

To send a message to a phone owner, a Gmail user must enter the phone number, indicate which country it is in, and then type the message. The phone owner is then advised: "(Gmail) user@gmail.com sent you an SMS from Gmail. You can send a reply to this msg, or send STOP to opt out, HELP for more info." The message follows, sent from one of a pool of phone numbers controlled by Google. By tracking who is in conversation with whom, Google can ensure that SMS replies to one of those numbers are directed to the appropriate Gmail user.

Orange currently supports Gmail SMS Chat in Kenya, Senegal and Uganda, and under the latest agreement will shortly offer it in Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea Conakry and Niger, with a trial version in Egypt, the company said Wednesday. Ultimately, it plans to extend the SMS-to-chat service to all 20 countries across Africa and the Middle East in which it operates, it said.

But Orange's ambitions don't stop there: The operator also hopes to deliver other, as-yet unspecified, Google services via SMS in Africa.

Those services might one day include an SMS version of "Person Finder," an application developed by Google to help reunite families and friends separated after a disaster. Google set up versions of Person Finder after recent earthquakes in Haiti, New Zealand and Japan, but they all relied on people having a reliable Internet connection to add information or consult the database.

That's pretty unlikely following a disaster, so as an entry for this year's Random Hacks of Kindness contest, a group developed an SMS interface for the application. Google's Crisis Response team is looking at integrating the SMS interface in a future version of Person Finder, the company said.

Outside Africa and the Middle East, Google already offers Gmail Chat SMS service in the U.S. through all operators, in Indonesia through Indosat and Telkomsel, and in the Philippines, through Globe, Smart and Sun Cellular.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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