Need help with health, diet or even the opposite sex? Then look no further than your mobile phone, which can now receive alerts on almost anything, writes Yvonne Gordon.
If you've got a mobile phone you might already receive text alerts with breaking news, sports results and weather forecasts. Now you can sign up for everything from health-and-beauty advice to gardening tips, including reminders to cut out processed food, wear nicer underwear or get down to weeding those borders.
This is the type of "fun everyday alert" that customers of O2, the mobile-phone company, can receive each day for a small charge. Tips in love are available, too: if you're having trouble attracting a mate, text alerts can offer advice. "Playboys" alerts will help you to "become irresistible to women with chat-up lines, dressing tips and impressive date ideas". "Slick Chick" alerts advise on what to wear, how to flirt or what scent to use to help you to find a man. Vodafone customers can sign up for similar alerts, ranging from "quit smoking" and diet tips to horoscopes available as tarot and love versions.
Although the mobile-phone companies can't yet provide facts and figures about who is signing up for these services, there is no doubt that as people are using their mobile phones more and more, the quantity of information available by text alert is growing.
The variety of content is also growing. Subscribers in Italy can receive a daily prayer from the Pope for about 12c each, and one company will even send Shakespeare lovers a quote every day. This type of text alert could make a welcome change from the marketing messages and spam many people receive on their handsets. But according to Bettina MacCarvill of Amárach Consulting, a market- research company, having to pay for alerts may discourage many people.
"Interest is quite high, but people aren't prepared to pay for content, like they are slow to pay for it on the Internet. The nature of text alerts - jokes and horoscopes - will appeal to younger people, yet they are the people who won't have the money," says MacCarvill. "They are quite cost conscious, so that's why they use text messages so much. Paying for alerts builds up over time."
Students Louise Scanlon and Gráinne Murray, both 20, agree. "I signed up for text alerts in college during rag week because they were free," says Scanlon. "They let me know about events which were on." Murray says: "I would love to get the horoscope ones for the crack, but you have to pay."
Patrick Loftus (19), another student, also signed up for free rag-week texts. He says he would like to sign up for sport alerts but doesn't because of the charge.
Not all text alerts are paid for by the person who receives them, however. Many companies now use text alerts as part of an information or competition service. Fife Council, in Scotland, has set up a scheme to text its tenants with reminders to pay their rent. Recruitment agencies have also started to use SMS to alert job seekers; airlines and train companies now alert their customers about delays and banks tell their customers about share-price and account changes.
The marketing department at Miller Genuine Draft has been using text alerts to offer free concert tickets to customers on its database. "We found the response rates very good, with a 20-25 per cent average response per text alert," says Dave Robinson, the beer's brand manager.
Irish Ferries has found text alerts an effective way of sending urgent messages of delays or cancellations to its customers. Passengers provide their numbers and receive a simple message and updates as required, when sailings are at risk.
Text alerts can be used for more serious information too. There's an intimacy to SMS that has made it a popular way to broach delicate subjects, especially when targeting teenagers.
A pilot scheme in which students receive text messages about crisis-pregnancy agencies was launched earlier this month. The scheme is part of the Positive Options campaign run by the Government's Crisis Pregnancy Agency. By texting the word "info" to the agency, phone users receive a message listing pregnancy agencies and their phone numbers. They can reply to this message to receive further information on any of the agencies, such as opening hours and services available.
"Research showed us that one of the biggest problems girls or women with a crisis pregnancy have is not knowing where to go or who to ring," says Olive Braiden, the agency's chairwoman. "People like to be able to access information themselves privately, without telling anyone, and then decide what they are going to do.
"Texting is part of the campaign. It's a free service. It is being piloted at the moment, but we are planning to continue with it, as it has been so successful."
In Japan, professionally run mobile-phone chat groups known as keitai clubs let their members know by text about high-street bargains or special offers. Shops are often mobbed by thousands of customers as a result. The clubs have proved very successful for both customers who want to save money and retailers who want to shift stock.
"What's happening in Japan and location-based text alerts will be the next big thing here," says Cara Twohig of Vodafone.
Location-based text alerts are messages sent to customers in the vicinity of a particular shop or restaurant. People on the lookout for something to eat can also sign up to be alerted to early-bird menus or other special offers at restaurants. "It's all to do with personalising information and the alerts that people want, things that are life enhancing," says Twohig.
The age of text-alert users depends on the content, according to Steve Weller of Meteor, the Republic's newest mobile operator. It launched breaking news and sports results services six months ago. Ireland.com, this newspaper's website, has provided a breaking-news text service through O2 and Vodafone since 1999.
The next stage in text alerts is multimedia messaging services, which include not only text but also sounds and images, both still and moving. "If a customer is signed up for football alert, they will receive an alert when their team scores and a picture of the goal being scored," says Weller.
"Colour phones now coming on to the market give so much more fun and differentiation between content. They will drive the next phase of content. In the future, customers will be able to receive a five-second footage clip of the goal being scored."