Mobile phones are everywhere. There are now 6 billion active mobile phone connections across the world, an increasing number of which are in emerging markets, in communities who have previously been hard to reach. Recognizing this potential, our Founder, Ken Banks, envisioned FrontlineSMS six and a half years ago as a means to harness the power of mobile to lower barriers to social change. Since then, our open-source SMS-messaging software has been downloaded over 25,000 times, and helps organizations in over 80 countries to overcome their communication challenges to reach millions. Over the last two years, we’ve focussed on gathering user feedback and comments, and planned a roadmap for the software grounded in Ken’s vision, better serving the needs of its community, and well-positioned for a multi-channel, global mobile future.
Since late 2010, feedback from users on the existing platform, and learning from our work with organizations implementing the software, have been generating new designs and ideas. In collaboration with Gabe White, a Kampala-based user experience designer, we redesigned the software to be more intuitive, simpler to extend and run over networks, and make it easier to manage larger volumes of messages. After many months of building and testing – by many of the users in our original design research – we are releasing the first fruits of that work: FrontlineSMS Version 2.
What’s different about the new platform
FrontlineSMS Version 2 makes it easier to create and manage common SMS activities like making announcements, conducting polls and automating replies to incoming SMS. Our polls activity visualizes incoming data, allowing you to quickly understand the results. You can manage messages more easily with a flexible filing system, featuring folders and an archive capability; as well as an inbox, outbox, and the ability to monitor pending messages. Important messages can be starred for later, and a more robust search allows you to locate messages based on name, location, or date as well as by activity, group and folder. You can export your messages limited by date range, or from any search result, collection of messages or group of contacts.
The architecture of the new software makes it stronger and more flexible, allowing developers and users to customize FrontlineSMS to better meet their needs, and integrate it with other platforms and systems. Browser-based and built to run on Windows, Mac and Linux, FrontlineSMS still does not need the Internet to work, sending text messages via a phone or GSM modem. Online SMS aggregators Clickatell and IntelliSMS are already built-in, for those with a web connection, and more services will follow in the months to come.
User responses to the designs were overwhelmingly positive. One person commented; “it’s a huge leap forward… it feels much more modern and smooth functioning, and the design is nice and clean.” Another said; “this is really phenomenal: I could put it in front of any of our team and they could do awesome things with it.”
As Version 2 starts to make its way in the world – it has already been used in over 20 radio stations in Africa – we look forward to hearing more feedback from users about the new software, and what they’d like to see it do next.
The Future of FrontlineSMS
In the coming months and years, we will continue to build on the core, stand-alone software, adding new features, many of which will be new ‘activities’, in the language of Version 2; adding integrations with additional web-based SMS services; and taking a fresh look at critical functionality such as how FrontlineSMS deals with forms-based data collection. Also on the map for later this year is a web-based test platform, which is a first exciting step to a more varied menu of hosting options for our users.
Our users inspire and help direct our work, requesting new features and helping us to prioritize as we decide what to build next. Many of our commercial clients fund custom development of the software to their specifications, which then creates functionality which can be shared with the wider community, benefitting everyone. The feedback and interaction we have with our users are what makes our software special, and Version 2 is easier to extend than ever before, allowing our Nairobi-based developer team to service more of your requests, more quickly.
The FrontlineSMS specialist sector-specific projects, which focus on using and adapting the software for specific fields such as legal services, education and mobile money – FrontlineSMS:Legal, FrontlineSMS:Learn and FrontlineSMS:Credit – will provide tailored versions of the software designed for their communities to use. FrontlineSMS:Radio is due out later in the year, and will feature specific functionality designed for radio presenters and station managers.