FrontlineSMS: A Review

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Nov 12, 2008

In our ongoing reviews of mobile tools focused on the NGO sector, here is our latest edition: A review of FrontlineSMS, the much-written-about desktop SMs bulk messaging tool. We take a look at some use cases, outline technical considerations in using Frontline, and describe the tests that we ran.

From the review:  

Firstly, and most importantly for many users, FrontlineSMS provides a simple way to send and receive SMS on a laptop or desktp, with contact management and grouping ability for bulk messaging.   Provided installation comes off without a hitch and you are using a supported phone, this should allow new users to get started quickly, after which they can explore some of the more advanced functionality.

While the user interface is occasionally confusing, the documentation clearly describes the role and function of each screen. There is also a supportive user community, and developers actively respond to user questions in the forum. This makes the software ideal for groups who are just beginning to explore the potential for using mobiles in their work.


FrontlineSMS is not a mass messaging system--sending messages through a phone is slower than using a GSM modem, and even a modem struggles to send more than 300 messages.  Similarly, the requirement that the software runs continuously for the keyword-based autoreply makes it unsuitable for a situation where a large volume of incoming messages are expected. Generally, FrontlineSMS is less suitable for organisations that are confident with running mobile campaigns, and want to run complicated keyword-based campaigns or reach large numbers of people.

More advanced functionality, currently being developed, will be available from the email and forms tabs in the near future. The ability to design forms for data collection is likely to be particularly interesting to organizations exploring alternatives to paper-based processes. Once designed, the completed form (effectively a Java programme) can be sent to a Java-enabled phone for use in the field. The data that is collected will be sent back to FrontlineSMS, where it can be displayed and exported as necessary. While other systems provide similar functionality (RapidSMS allows users to define an input format for message parsing, and the OpenROSA consortium is developing various impementations of their mobile xforms standard), this should attract existing FrontlineSMS users and people wanting to try out cellphone-based data collection with a low barrier to entry. FrontlineSMS founder Ken Banks hoped to have the Forms functionality completed by the end of October 2008.

Along with the release of new functionality, November should finally see the open source release of FrontlineSMS. This will please developers, who will now be able to get their hands on the code and make modifications.  One area that this could particularly benefit is the number of working phones, as there are likely to be many phones that 'almost work', and could be made usable with minor code tweaks. At the same time, the accumulated knowledge of phone hardware embodied in the phone auto-detection code is a valuable contribution to the open source community. For the full review, go here.

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