Be prepared to feel ancient — the first ever text message is 25 years old.
British engineer Neil Papworth sent the first SMS (Short Message Service) on December 3rd, 1992, when he wrote “Merry Christmas” on a computer and sent it to a mobile phone belonging to the then-director of Vodafone Richard Jarvis. It was a modest start, but it ultimately changed technology and even social norms.
It took a long time for SMS to find widespread adoption, both because of the cellular networks themselves (coverage was far from ubiquitous in 1992) and phones whose buttons revolved around dialing rather than typing. But then the smartphone arrived.
In the US alone, the volume of messages surged from 12.5 billion per month in 2006 to 45 billion a year later. By June 2017, there were 781 billion messages passing around in the country. Messaging was suddenly easy, and SMS was ready and waiting to take advantage of that newfound freedom.
There’s little doubt that texting has influenced communication in the years since. Where texting was once seen as a rarity or even rude, it’s frequently the first choice for communication — how often are you annoyed when someone calls you instead of sending a brief message? Accordingly, it’s entirely common to see services that are available through SMS, whether it’s ordering pizza or getting music recommendations. Twitter’s original 140-character limit (which was just lifted in November) was built around SMS’ 160-character ceiling to enable tweets in an era before the mobile internet was widely available. The effects of SMS haven’t always been positive (they’ve facilitated spam, for instance), but it’s clear there’s no going back.
The question now is whether or not SMS has a healthy long-term future. The combination of smartphones and near-ubiquitous mobile internet access has led to an explosion of messaging services and social networks that do much more. WhatsApp by itself was delivering 55 billion messages per day as of July, and that’s not including other heavyweights like Facebook Messenger, Apple’s iMessage or Google’s Hangouts.
SMS will likely stick around for a long time, as it’s the most practical option for anyone who either can’t get a smartphone or doesn’t live in an area with reliable, affordable mobile data. However, it’s entirely possible that SMS will go the way of GSM, fading away (it’s certainly declining in the UK) as people move to far more sophisticated technology.
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