Quick take – The new FrontlineSMS


I’m excited for Ken Banks.

I’ve written on FrontlineSMS on this blog before, so I won’t go into details about what it is and how great a programme I think it is. Ken’s launched the new version of FrontlineSMS and it’s got a spiffy new website to boot. 

Recently, I tried to use the new version in its beta form for the Eastern Provincial Council election work in Sri Lanka, but it just did not play nice with my Nokia 3310c phone on Vista. The programme “saw” the phone but just did not connect. I have a good mind to save up some money and go for a GSM modem (as Ken recommends) to test out the full functionality of this programme and its potential for the work I do in Sri Lanka, though I feel that asking those who want to use this programme to its fullest potential to also buy new equipment is not cricket. 

I wish Ken well in this latest avatar of what is already a well proven system. My concern however is that the version I tested still required more than a little technical knowledge to get up and running – technical knowledge that the grassroots NGOs that would find this programme the most useful simply don’t have. How many readers of this post know how to (re)configure COM ports, set up modems, disable Nokia Phone Manager software, fiddle around in the Windows Control Panel and enable administrator privileges for the (beta version) programme to even start on Vista?

So there’s the programme’s Achilles Heal. Powerful in the right hands, still too technical and leaves too much to chance to be promoted as a advocacy tool that grassroots NGOs can use for their advocacy from the get-go. To be fair though, FrontlineSMS is the closest I have seen to such a system and Ken’s dedicated to ironing out the flaws and making this more accessible to a wider audience. 

In the meanwhile, take the tour and request a download. The beta version still only really runs on Windows. Ken claimed it ran on OS X, but the Windows executable beta version I downloaded did not and frankly could not, given that it was packaged for Windows platforms only. Since the programme is based on Java though, I’m looking forward to true OS agnosticism in the near future. 

All the best Ken. So when are you going to make this open source? 😉

6 thoughts on “Quick take – The new FrontlineSMS

  1. Hey Sanjana

    Hope all’s well. Interesting post – thanks for the comments and analysis!

    As you know, the release you had was an early Beta, and the final version we release (next week!) is a lot different. Additionally, we weren’t concentrating on Vista support (there were a number of issues), so during testing and development we concentrated on supporting XP, which is what most users and trialists have been using.

    In terms of handset support, the new version does support many more than the first release, but as you can appreciate subtle differences in the many different makes and models out there make it impossible to support them all. We’re still building lists, but have details of phones that we know will work on the http://frontlinesms.com/download/requirements.php page.

    One of the challenges of FrontlineSMS has always been the “unknown”, i.e. the devices in use. We could have gone for support for just a small number, but that would have limited access for NGOs with little financial resources. I think we’ve struck a good balance with what we have, and as you comment the best route is a GSM modem if users expect to use the software a lot.

    There’s also support for web-based sending of messages (via Clickatell at the moment) in the latest build (which you didn’t have in the one you tested), which means messages can be sent out without a device at all. We’re continually adapting and working on accessibility with the software.

    Drop me a line if you’d like to test-drive the final release! It still won’t support your 3310c, but you’ll see the additional functionality that we’ve built in (including language support for several additional countries).



  2. Thanks for the response Ken. I guess the point about all this and what excited me when I first heard about the new avatar of FrontlineSMS was that it would run on whatever OS I had installed. That it is still in a significant way linked to the OS users use I think places it behind OS agnostic tools like the new SMS module for Sahana, which though is not a direct competitor to FrontlineSMS nevertheless shows just how easy it is to leverage the web services model instead of a desktop client model to ensure that it runs on the widest possible range of machines.

    I fully agree that it’s impossible for FrontlineSMS to support all phones, but again, the Sahana SMS module does precisely that, supporting all phone without any fiddling around with COM ports, Nokia software, Control Panel settings, modem settings or whatever else. Sure, FrontlineSMS runs locally whereas Sahana requires a ‘net connection – which is precisely why I would like to see far more phones supported in the future than are today.

    News of Clickatell integration is exciting – what are the costs involved here?

    And yes, do send me the link to the final release. I’m not about to buy a GSM modem just yet (and am in principle dead against buying new equipment just to get new software to run) but would like to see what’s possible with FrontlineSMS and my humble 3310c.


  3. Also just to add, I assume that with the new Clickatell integration, FrontlineSMS mobile phone compatibility issues just disappear? That would be really fantastic, though if the cost is prohibitively high NGOs would need to find some way to fund their SMS related communications costs, which are not insignificant.

    Also to quality the ‘net connection needed for Sahana. While Sahana itself can run locally, I think the SMS module needs to communicate with the web in order to send / receive SMS’s. May be wrong though. The Sahana SMS module features are here – http://www.lirneasia.net/2008/05/colloquium-sahana-sms-messaging-module/


  4. In response to your later queries, Sanjana…

    Many of the configuration issues have been resolved. For example, the Vista admin issue was caused by Vista’s tight security, and we’ve now resolved this. And you’re correct about the Clickatell functionality removing the need for a locally attached device. Costs are not prohibitive, either, so this we think will be a good solution for a number of NGOs.

    The whole purpose, of course, of sending out the Beta for testing was to see how the new version fared as we built it. Feeback such as yours has been helpful.

    The new version of FrontlineSMS is a significant improvement on the functionality of the first version, and we’re working hard to get it right.


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