The SMS message turns 22 years old

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This month the text message actually turned 22 years old.

It was December 3 in 1992 that Neil Papworth (who was 22 at the time) sent the very first SMS that read “merry christmas”.

It makes you realise how far mobile tech has come in a relatively short space of time – SMS is still the main form of mobile messaging and it generates billions for companies all around the world. It’s expected that by 2016, there will be around 9 trillion messages globally. The numbers are just staggering…

But back in ’92, nobody would have expected that SMS would explode like it has – now every phone can send the 160-character messages that we’re all used to sending every day. SMS quickly became an important revenue generator for mobile operators around the world. In 2011, SMS was 16% of the revenue generated by operators in Europe alone.

SMS became popular for a reason – it’s cheap and is supported by every phone. It’s also supported by every device and you can guarantee that whoever you send a message to can support it. This has helped SMS become universally supported, and even find some surprising uses that nobody could have expected.

The younger generation has even coined its own ‘text speak’ as a convenient shorthand – examples such as OMG and BRB.

The history of SMS

SMS on iPhone

A single SMS is limited to just 160 characters, but this limit was based on tests by the guys researching the technology. Friedhelm Hillebrand was one of the leaders, who was chairman of the non-voice services committee for the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) who designed the system to send and receive messages.

In the late 80’s, the networks of the time were very limited and there wasn’t enough bandwidth to send larger messages over cellular. So Hillebrand needed to find a viable alternative that could deliver fairly short messages and one which would be supported by all the network companies and every phone…

The approach they came up with was to use one of the unused radio channels called SS7 – which was already used for sending messages to phones about the signal strength, but that they thought could be reused. “We were looking for a cheap implementation,” said Hillebrand. “Most of the time, nothing happens on this control link… it was free capacity on the system.”

He came up with a fixed size of 160 characters which was based on looking at people’s messages on postcards, as he discovered that most of them contained only around 150-160 characters. He also checked this finding with some typewriter experiments where he types random questions and answers, as if simulating a conversation, and he found that in most cases 160 characters was enough.

“This is perfectly sufficient,” he thought to himself.

Texting explodes in popularity

All the mobile networks were surprised by the popularity of SMS, which was encouraged by the young generation who took to the fledgling technology immediately.

It was teenagers in particular who loved texting more than anyone else, and it even overtook the phone call in terms of popularity. But some people have said the telephone call is dying due to the increase in SMS (and messaging app) usage – in fact in the USA in 2010 there were 188 billion text messages sent.

Today, sending an SMS is still popular, but messaging apps are definitely on the rise. WhatsApp is now the most popular one with around million active users, followed by QQ Mobile and Facebook Messenger (at 500 million).

The problem with all these messaging apps is that many people don’t have them installed. Also, the popularity of the apps changed every month, and there are huge differences around the world. In Thailand, LINE is the most popular app (and in Japan), while Facebook Messenger is popular pretty much everywhere.

Messaging Stats

When you look at the statistics, in China over the last year it would be hard to tell that SMS usage was declining, because 62 billion text messages were sent in October (that’s just one month!!!). So, even though everyone is using some type of messaging app, the SMS is still well and truly alive.

Is the SMS dying?

Whatsapp

The SMS message has without doubt decline in terms of numbers sent, encouraged by the rise of instant messaging apps (which actually surpassed the number of SMS’s sent in 2012). But application to person (A2P) messages continue to grow. What are they? They’re the type of message that your bank might send you when you make a transaction, for instance.

There were also more than 8 trillion SMS’s sent in 2013, so as a familiar method of communication, SMS will be here for many years. It’s also the only way to guarantee that the person on the other end can be reached.

So we’re not yet ready to kiss the SMS goodbye.

Happy Birthday, SMS!!!!

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