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SMS is 25 years old – and still going strong

(Image credit: Image Credit: Relexahotels / Pixabay)

With all the amazing technology available today, it may come as a surprise that SMS text messaging holds the title as the most successful communications platform of all time. From presidents to philanthropists, the simple text message has helped connect billions of people around the globe. In the process, it’s transformed our work and social lives, and saved countless lives.

As we celebrate its 25th birthday this week, it’s fun to think back on the origins of SMS and the developments that have shaped its phenomenal success to-date. While you may not remember what your first text message said, I’m sure the grey screen, blocky text, T9 typing, and Nokia phone surely hold a special nostalgic place in your memory.    

SMS can trace its origins back to 1984, when Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert from the GSM Corporation first developed the concept of sending a short message (hence SMS – the short message service) to and from a mobile device. But it wasn’t until 1992, when the first text was sent, that we can say SMS was truly born. 

1992: SMS is born  

It was the year Bill Clinton was elected president and Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” hit the charts at number one. But 1992 was also the year the first text message was sent – from Neil Papworth to Richard Jarvis of UK-based mobile operator Vodafone.  

It was a landmark moment for communications, but it was far from the finished article. Neil sent the text message from a PC, and Richard was unable to reply because his Orbitel 901 mobile phone didn’t even have a keypad.  

Due to network constraints at the time, messages had to fit within a 128-byte limit (the standard defined in the 1980s under the Global System for Mobile Communications – GSM) and no GSM mobile phones of the time supported SMS.

But the basic principle had been nailed, and remains much the same today. Its influence has even spread to social media – Twitter’s 160 character limit comes from its text messaging foundations (20 characters for the username and 140 characters for the tweet).  

And mobile operators soon saw the business potential. 

1993: SMS goes commercial  

But there was a problem. Like the first text the year before, there were still no devices that supported peer-to-peer texting. The solution: Finnish cell phone behemoth Nokia released the 1011 – the first handset that enabled users to send and receive text messages – and the world was changed forever.

(Interestingly, 1993 wasn’t just the beginning of commercial text messaging. It also saw IBM introduce the first “smartphone” a full 15 years before Apple’s first iPhone – a crucial moment in the history of computing and communications.)  

But for the next few years, SMS failed to capture people’s imaginations. 

1995: Progress is slow, but more firms get behind SMS  

Consumers initially failed to see the advantages of SMS, so uptake in the early days was slow. In 1995, the average mobile phone user in the US sent less than one text a month.  

But things were happening. In 1995, Cliff Kushler of Tegic invented the T9 system for writing text messages on a numerical keypad, using keypad numbers 1-9 to type individual letters. The system caught on and was quickly adopted by Nokia, Ericsson, Sagem and many others. 

1997: QWERTY comes to mobile  

Two years after T9, Nokia once again blazed trails by releasing a full physical “qwerty” keyboard on a mobile phone – the 9000i Communicator. It paved the way for the phenomenal success of the BlackBerry phone (launched in 2002), and set in motion the gradual rise of the way we text on smartphones today.

Not too long after, mobile operators were hailing SMS as a quicker alternative to voice calls. 

1999: SMS picks up the pace  

In 1999, Prince wasn’t the only one having a party. It was also the year when text really took off, and mobile operators turned a simple messaging platform into a global billion-dollar industry. It’s no coincidence that this was also the year that operators started to allow users to send texts to people on different carrier networks.  

Texting became so popular that it sparked its own language. Txtspk made it quicker to text, and meant users could fit more words into the character limit (a gr8 success 4 customers). As a result, the average number of text messages sent in the US reached 35 per person every month. And at $0.10 a text, it was Christmas come early for mobile operators. 

2007: SMS is the most successful communication platform of all time  

2007 was a landmark year for SMS, and mobile phones in general. Not only did Apple release the first iPhone – propelling smartphones into the mainstream – but it was also the first year where more texts were sent than calls made from mobile phones.  

This was also the year that Rich Communication Services (RCS) first saw the light of day. As with SMS, it would take another decade for it to become a successful messaging platform.  

And despite rapid developments in smartphone technology, and exciting new apps beginning to crowd people’s home screens, SMS remained the number one form of mobile communication. 

2011: Smartphones are in full swing, but SMS remains dominant  

By this point, smartphones had taken people away from numerical keypads and physical “qwerty” keyboards, to virtual keyboards that pop up on a smartphone screen. In this year the introduction of Swype sped up the process of texting once again, allowing people to simply glide their fingers across a virtual keyboard to text.  

As texting became quicker and easier, more people started using it as their go-to method of communication with not only friends and family, but with preferred businesses as well. It was in 2011 that SMS usage peaked – with 3.5 billion active users across the world. 

Today: 5 billion people and counting  

With the rise of instant messaging services such as WhatsApp, iMessage, and Facebook Messenger, many experts have started writing obituaries for SMS. But unlike other communication platforms, SMS is used by 5 billion people globally, and it looks like it’s here to stay.  

What’s more, SMS has paved the way for revolutionary new services like RCS, which uses SMS functionality to send information-rich, interactive messages with app-like capabilities.  

And the future? Well, SMS is still proving its worth to brands looking to improve their customer experience. It remains an ideal platform for sending customers useful, relevant information in the right place and at the right time.  

So, this isn’t just the story of how a basic messaging service became the most widely adopted communications platform in history. It’s also the story of how SMS paved the way for a new age of communications and customer relations.

Oisin Lunny, Chief Evangelist, OpenMarket 

Image Credit: Relexahotels / Pixabay

Oisin Lunny
Oisin Lunny is part of the Market Development team at OpenMarket, helping the world’s biggest brands connect with customers at the right time, in the right way.