Throwback: That time you could send e-mails via SMS and vice-versa

Gmail has been around for almost a decade and a half now. Can you imagine a world where there is no Gmail?

Such a world used to exist before Gmail launched in 2004. A world that was dominated by Microsoft’s Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail. Elsewhere, there was also AOL (America Online). The same email service’s instant messaging services were also all the rage back in the day. There was no Facebook, there was no Twitter, there were no ephemeral messaging apps.

As the world ushered in Gmail and lots of other innovations, we in Kenya were still making our own baby steps – getting the world’s most recognizable and successful mobile money platform as well as getting to know and appreciate the need for 3G internet. While Safaricom is very well known for those two, as time has gone by and we have adopted apps and sending messages in whichever format has become part and parcel of us, some other things, like the struggle to send emails back in the day, are slowly being forgotten.

Allow me to jog your memory if, by any chance, you happened to be either an advanced and adventurous mobile phone user by the year 2008 or badly wanted a BlackBerry, Palm or any of those hippy Nokias back then to get your workflow in order but couldn’t afford any. I single out the three brands because they had the most eligible precursors to the smartphone as we know it in the country today. Well, to be fair to Samsung, there was the Omnia series but that, as far as I am concerned doesn’t evoke as many nostalgic feels as the three do, whichever part of the world you are in.

While feature phones are slowly being edged out, they once made up a majority of our perception of services we mostly relegated to the occasional visit to the cyber cafe. Services like sending emails. As such, you can imagine how much of a relief it must have been for some of us to be able to set up emails on our feature phones. Yes, that used to be a thing and some people, like yours truly, used such a service for a while.

Powered by London-based ForgetMeNot Africa, the SMS-to-email service in the country was pioneered by Safaricom in 2008.

Here’s what used to happen: everyone, or at least those who opted in to the service, had an email address hosted by Safaricom that was tied to their MSISDN (mobile phone number). I can’t remember exactly how the addresses used to look like but they were something like this: Crude as they were, they were effective and they worked. At least I remember being able to use such a feature to communicate and the message did get to the other party. Through the address, one could receive emails wherever they were without the need for a smartphone (still rare at the time) or a visit to the local cyber cafe. E-mails got delivered as SMS.

This particular implementation that involved the mapping of one’s phone number directly to an address was meant to make communication two-way instead of one way since it was already possible to send messages to a shortcode that would in turn be delivered on the other end as an email.

As fate would have it, the rapid advances in mobile rendered the service dead not long after its debut. Even without prompting, as soon as I figured out how to set up Ovi mail on my Nokia feature phone, that was the end of my relationship with Safaricom’s SMS-to-email feature. Safaricom would take a while before wrapping up the service that, I believe, few even remember ever existed.

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Of course, there was also the bit where Safaricom, in 2010, partnered with Google to launch one of my personal favourites back then: Gmail to SMS. Remember it? From Gmail on the desktop, one could send an SMS to any Safaricom mobile phone number. In return, the recipient could respond to the received SMS in order to initiate a reply which would then be delivered to the other party on their desktop interface. It was the best.

What other service or feature on your mobile phone did you rely on at some back in the day but we have since forgotten or can’t possibly imagine being in use today?

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at]