25 years ago, on 3rd December 1992 a 22-year-old software architect working for Sema Group, Neil Papworth, sent the very first text message or SMS (Sort Message Service). It said simply “Merry Christmas.”
In today’s world, the simple text message is so widespread and innocuous that it feels like it has always been here.
In 1992 Home Alone was topping the Box Office rating and the now iconic ‘I Will always love you’ was number one in the US charts when this simple seasonal message was sent over Vodafone’s GSM network. Handsets at that time could only receive messages so Papwoth used an Orbitel 901 handset to send the message.
Just 12 months later Nokia released the first handset capable of sending text messages and so the world began its journey, with this important step, towards the smartphone and the instant message dominated world we know today.
This represented a significant cultural change. Initially it was slow to take off, mainly because of the cumbersome nature of having to type out your text on handsets designed first and foremost for dialling telephone numbers. With the arrival of smartphones, however, everything changed and the true text message took off.
In 2006, in the US alone the number of texts sent from phones went from 12.5 billion a month to the huge number of 45 billion in 2007, accounting for around 780 billion messages sent in the US
The humble text message has had a profound effect on society. It has become the preferred method of communication for most people and has seen new phrases such as ‘OMG’ and ‘LOL’ entering the public lexicon.
And yet, the future of SMS is now uncertain. Whilst it was undoubtedly the foundation of modern communication, in the last decade we have seen the growth of instant messaging, enabled by social media. In July 2017 WhatsApp was delivering over 50 billion messages a day, this number would be far higher if Facebook Messenger, iMessage and Google Hangouts was included. Most people seem to use a hybrid system, with some of their contacts mainly contacted by SMS and others taking place over instant messaging.
Whatever happens to SMS in the future, the enormous and long lasting effects of that first message has shaped our world forever. “Merry Christmas”