Every day, people in the United Kingdom send around 96 billion text messages. However, the very first text message was sent 25 years ago on the 3rd of December. The message was simple and it says: “Merry Christmas.”
“Spelt with the full words – not Xmas,” states the British engineer who sent the said message, Neil Papworth, shunning the abbreviations that would define the medium.
SMS stands for short message service. The very first of its kind was not even sent on a mobile phone as handsets were only capable of receiving messages, not send them, so Papworth typed out the said greetings using a computer.
Papworth stated: “I don’t know if they really thought it was going to be a big thing.”
It took a while for texting to develop as phones that were SMS-capable were only made available in 1993. However, as the mobile phones developed, texting skyrocketed.
By 2007, people in the United Kingdom were sending around 66 billion SMS messages per year; in 2012, UK citizens sent around 151 billion.
The United States was slower to catch on, mainly since mobile operators in America charged less for voice calls and more for texts, and due to the availability and popularity of PC-to-PC instant messaging or what people also know as IM.
And maybe because they missed that initial adoption, Americans still does not add the customary ‘x’ at the end of every message.
According to the curator of technology and engineering at the Science Museum in London, Elizabeth Bruton, the very first SMS was “an incredibly important development in the history of mobile telephones.” It was when phones that were already around for over a century, moved beyond audio.
“For the very first time we have mobile telephones that were more than just literal mobile telephones, moving beyond voice communications to a new application of the mobile spectrum – to sending, literally, text messages.
“And we can see that continuation through to today when we have hundreds of thousands of applications on our smartphone. So SMS can be considered the first step towards the modern smartphone.”
SMS shifted the norms of social interaction. Instead of calling someone and interrupting them and demanding their attention instantly, it allows people to choose when to send a reply.
It established one-to-many communication as users could also send the same exact message to various contacts.
When Twitter was first introduced in July 2006, the social media site borrowed the 140 character limit of SMS.
However, 2012 proved to be the peak for text messages, in terms of volume as it has been replaced by internet-based apps like Facebook Messenger, iMessage, and WhatsApp.
In 2015, around 30 billion messages were sent globally via WhatsApp every day, compared to the 20 billion that were sent via SMS.
That also indicated a more radical shift, away from an open standard which anyone is able to make use of to closed messaging systems that are controlled by technology giants.
Despite this, Ms Bruton says that SMS still has a future “because it works where very few data standards will work. You don’t need Wi-Fi, you don’t need 3G to be able to send a very basic text message.”
Happy birthday, SMS xx.