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‘Texting’ talking in Philippines

Sending written messages via cell phone is latest trend

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MANILA, Philippines — Muslim insurgents battling Philippine troops in the south have a new weapon. When the shelling and gunfire let up, they send a barrage of scathing insults to Manila's forces by cell phone.

"There is a text war among the MILF and our forces," said Brig. Gen. Eliseo Rio Jr., referring to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the larger of two rebel groups fighting for an independent state. "Our soldiers are texting insults to the MILF. And the MILF are sending the insults back."

"Texting"? Yes, texting — as in exchanging short typed messages over a cell phone.

All over the Philippines, a verb has been born, and Filipinos use it whether they are speaking English or Tagalog.

Sending e-mail on mobile phones has also taken off in richer parts of the world: Europe, especially in Scandinavia, and in Japan and other East Asian countries, particularly among teenagers. But in the Philippines, where incomes are far lower, it is even more popular. And it has spawned an entire subculture, complete with its own vocabulary, etiquette and tactical uses. It has become particularly popular here, in large part because text messaging is cheap while traditional telephone service is spotty and Internet access by computer is expensive.

"It's evolved into something similar to chatting on the Internet," said Majidi John Bola, a 32-year-old company manager, as he sat poking away at his mobile phone at a Starbucks in Manila's business district.

The difference is that while chat-room denizens sit in contemplative isolation, glued to computer screens, in the Philippines the "texters" are right out in the throng. Malls are infested with shoppers who appear to be navigating by cellular compass. Groups of diners sit ignoring one another, staring down at their phones as if fumbling with rosaries. Commuters, jaywalkers, even mourners — everyone in the Philippines seems to be texting over the phone. Most use English, since messages usually can be typed more quickly than in Tagalog.

Faye Siytangco, a 23-year-old airline sales representative, was not surprised when at the wake for a friend's father she saw people bowing their heads and gazing toward folded hands. But when their hands started beeping and their thumbs began to move, she realized to her astonishment that they were not, in fact, praying.

"People were actually sitting there and texting," Siytangco said. "Filipinos don't see it as rude anymore."

The popularity of the practice puts the Philippines at the forefront of wireless Internet usage, well ahead of much richer countries. Already, people can use their phones to send text messages to computers, and vice versa. Here as elsewhere, the newest mobile phones have access to an abridged World Wide Web. And not far away is new technology that is supposed to make browsing on a hand phone as easy and as fast as it is on a personal computer.

All this gives high-technology executives like Roy Buzon, an American venture capitalist who is investing in local start-ups, confidence that wireless technologies will help the Philippines close the Internet usage gap with the United States and Europe.

Why is the new text message system so popular here? Many say it is the high-technology Filipino equivalent of gesticulating — body language with an antenna. "Filipinos are very gregarious — we like to talk a lot," said Rodolfo Salalima, a senior vice president at Globe Telecom, the local cellular operator benefiting most from the trend.

They also love a good bargain. The craze for sending text messages by phone started last year, when Globe introduced prepaid cards that enabled students — and soldiers — too poor for a long-term subscription to start using cellular phones, which can be bought cheaply. Since talking on mobile phones costs 8 pesos a minute, about 20 cents, and sending text messages from them was free, people quickly figured out how to express themselves on a phone's alphanumeric keypad.

By the end of the year, Globe was handling 18 million messages a day, roughly 26 per customer, more than all the messages sent in Germany, France, Italy and Britain combined.

After Globe's network ground to a halt a few times under the load, it instituted a 1 peso-a-message charge to promote "responsible" use of text messaging. That cut the average messages per customer in half, but the number of Globe customers has doubled. Generation Text, as the media dubbed it, was born.

Sending text messages does not require making a call. People merely type in a message and the recipient's phone number, hit the phone's send key and off it goes to the operator's message center, which forwards it to the recipient. Because messages are exchanged over the frequency the network uses to identify phones rather than the frequencies their owners talk on, messages can be sent and received the instant a phone is turned on — and can even be received when a phone call is in progress.

Sending text messages by phone is an irritating skill to master, largely because 26 letters, plus punctuation, have to be created with only 10 buttons. Typing the letter C, for example, requires pressing the No. 2 button three times; an E is the No. 3 button pressed twice; and so on. After the message is composed, it can be sent immediately to the phone number of the recipient, who can respond immediately by the same process.