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Many phones, either because of their manufacturer or their software, offer features that other models don’t. And for today’s example, it’s not because of patents. I’m talking about software. For instance, the Sidekick offers an unparalleled IM experience, the Blackberry offers one of the most hassle-free email experiences, and the Treos – both Palm and Windows Mobile – are the only phones that offer well implemented threaded SMS. (The Blackberry displays threaded SMS too, however it is a bit inconsistent, and since the SMS are not label with the author, reading them can be confusing.)

It’s unclear who decided that SMS, like email, should be displayed in a flat list organized by how recently they were received. At some point in time I’m sure this made sense – either because it was the only known paradigm or because developers had not figured out any other ways to display it.

However unlike emails, which are usually long and content heavy, SMS are short and typically involve a number of exchanges between the two (or more) participants. Rarely does one SMS get sent off and that is the end of the conversation.

This is especially true outside the US and Korea, where text messaging often supplants voice conversations altogether. Though initially people adopted using SMS instead of voice because of cost, now in many places it is simply how things are done, regardless of cost. In the US an unlimited messaging plan can be had cheap on most carriers, while voice seems to be getting more expensive. Even without this new cost advantage, people here are switching to SMS-centric communication.

This trend has been growing long enough (for years, actually) that companies have had plenty of time to catch up with it. And yet none of them have changed their SMS applications from the email inbox style to the IM chat style. Yet the only three companies that have an SMS style text application developed it that way from the very start. Blackberries, Treos and now the iPhone have all had threaded SMS since early in their history, if not since their beginning.

Manufacturers and OS designers have had years to observe the positive reactions to this method of SMS display. In the mean time, even email applications have caught up. Gmail displays mails back and forth on a single subject in a unified, threaded view. Both Apple Mail and now Outlook make attempts to thread messages as well. So despite the fact that email applications are larger, have more overhead and have been around longer, their designers have realized the value of the conversation and adapted. But the designers of mobile phone software, where the primary purpose of the device is conversation, still refuse to acknowledge this.

After using threaded SMS on a number of review phones, I firmly believe that any phone that doesn’t have is less usable, and thus less desirable than any phone that does. This could be one of the reasons many mass market trend setters are turning from Sidekicks and the like to Blackberries and Treos. It isn’t because they’re sexy or stylish, it’s because they display SMS right (and do email well).

Although Apple is by no means the first manufacturer to have threaded SMS, they may be the ones to put it on the map, simply because everyone – most of all every manufacturer – is paying attention to the iPhone. We can only hope that they don’t spend all their time focusing on the hardware technology, but also investigate the software. Manufacturers need to make this change.

Personally, I have decided I can’t wait another generation or two for threaded SMS. I investigated all the third party options for threaded SMS on S60 devices and was disappointed by all 3. But there are better options for Windows Mobile devices, and both the iPhone and Blackberry Curve have native threaded support and are sexy and interesting. My next handset will be selected from this group of options.