Text messaging turns 20 today, makes us all look old

James Han
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Who can remember his or hers first sent text message? I can, though I can’t really disclose its content here (yeah, it was that kind of message). Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about here, but rather about how old we’re all getting.

Seriously, just think about it. Text messaging turns 20 today. That’s 20 years, and, although I certainly can’t remember the service’s inception, my first interactions with a cellphone are so clear, but at the same time so very distant in my mind.   

But enough about me and my wallowing in self-pity and let’s hear some fun facts about text messaging’s dawn. The world’s first ever text was sent in 1992, on December 3, by then 22-year old UK engineer Neil Papworth.

The message was a short and customary “Merry Christmas” sent from a home computer to an Orbitel 901 mobile phone of one Richard Jarvis from Vodafone. Though Jarvis received the text in due time (before Christmas, that is), he couldn’t respond due to the technology not allowing that yet.


It took the inventors two more years to make text messaging available as a “feature” of mobile phones, with the 1994 Nokia 2010 being the road-opener. However, the origins of the text messaging idea actually go way back to 1984. That’s when Matti Makkonen, a Finnish engineer who later went on to work for Nokia and TeliaSonera, expressed for the first time what he calls “the need and the concept” of a very useful feature “for quick business needs”… over a pizza at a telecoms conference.

Fun fact – Makkonen made no money for the idea, failing to patent it in due time. Moreover, he doesn’t even feel it was “a patentable innovation” and hates to be called the “father of SMS” or a texting pioneer.

Moving on from ancient history though to the present time. What did text messaging manage to achieve in its two decades of existence? Quite a lot actually, as some reports say there have been 7.8 trillion SMS messages (5.9 trillion, according to others) sent in 2011 worldwide.

It seems that mobile users are sending around 50 texts a week in average at the moment, while carrier profits are said to have already topped $500 billion. Meanwhile, an estimated $1 trillion should be earned by communications service providers by 2019 if all goes according to plan.

But will everything go smoothly with text messaging being now threatened by instant messaging (IM) and social media? It’s actually pretty hard to predict, though one thing is clear – texts are on a decline. The first half of 2012 accounted for a pretty brutal fall after a crazy boost during 2010 and 2011. It’s nothing to be worried about (yet), but carriers might want to drop prices or make some other changes if SMS (Short Message Service) is to remain hip when it’ll turn 30 and then 40 and 50…

For the time being, let’s wish text messaging a happy, happy birthday. And remember, SMS, you’re going to be of age next year, so if we’re cutting you some slack now we’re expecting a huge party in 2013. Who’s with me?

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