Is it time to say goodbye to the text message?

31st Jan 2014 | 16:00

Is it time to say goodbye to the text message?

How SMS changed the world

"Merry Christmas," a short but simple message from Neil Papworth to Richard Jarvis heralded the start of mobile messaging 21 years ago.

That first text has led to the rise of mobile messaging and the decline in using a phone to call people. But before people begin to wonder what an SMS (Short Message Service) ever was, we're here to guide you through history of texting.

Mobile messaging now comes in many forms with the humble SMS format joined by MMS, email, IM (Instant Messaging) and via myriad different social media sites. It has become the central hub of the modern smartphone, with email and IM apps now populating every app store.

Could Papworth have predicted the revolution that "Merry Christmas" would start? Could Friedhelm Hillebrand foresee that his choice to limit messages to 160 characters would still prove enough to change history?

In the beginning

Back in 1992 that first text message had to be sent from a PC, carried by the Vodafone network to an Orbitel 901, a device that Jarvis was unable to reply from as the mobile phone had no method of inputting text.

We use the term mobile pretty loosely, as the Orbitel 901 has no resemblance to any modern portable device. It was massive device with a corded handset and whopping antenna.

Orbitel 901

Design wise, it was miles behind the $3000 Motorola MicroTAC, a handset that was leading the way with its sleek clamshell design. The Orbitel had a trick up its oversized sleeves, coming with digital GSM technology.

At the start of the switch from analogue mobile signals, digital technology created the need for larger batteries leading to the handbag-style design of the Orbitel.

Nokia comes a-knocking

Messaging still had to be done through PCs until Nokia decided in 1993 that text messages should be sent by mobile devices, namely the Nokia 1011.

The Nokia 1011 signified a massive change in mobile design, coming in the candybar design that we are now all familiar with. It measured in at a sizeable 192 x 60 x 45mm, weighing a whopping 475g (that's 6g heavier than the iPad Air).

Nokia 1011

You also had to be careful with your typing, as it wasn't until 10 December 1995 that T9 predictive text was created. At this time the average American was sending 0.4 texts a month, equating to just five texts a year.

Compare that to five years later, and American's were averaging 35 texts a month, or 2008 when the average number of texts had increased to a whopping 357 per month.

Part of this rise was the development of full keyboard phones, the first of which was built by Nokia. Nokia beat the BlackBerry 850 to the punch, with its portrait flip phone the Nokia 9000i Communicator in 1997.

The Text Message: Merry Christmas to global revolutionary

Despite being a flip device, it weighed 78g less than Nokia 1011 (yet still three times that of the Samsung Galaxy S4), at 397g. Inside was a 24MHz processor and 8MB of memory, and the 9000i Communicator was also able to send and receive emails.

Going cross network

With messaging becoming more prevalent on devices, it may surprise you that it wasn't until 1999 that messages could be sent between operators.

This meant early adopters had to make sure their partner, friends or colleagues were on the same network if they wanted to avoid an actual voice conversation.

Initially cross network SMS communications commanded a much higher price, and back in 2008 it cost 2p per text to a handset on the same network, or 10p to rival carrier.

The UK surpassed a billion text messages per month in 2001, but its power was rapidly growing - text messaging was instrumental in everything from organising protests to disseminating information from disasters quickly.

Meeting MMS

MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) was soon developed and the technology was first deployed in March 2002 by Norwegian network Telenor.

Unfortunately problems, such as image format or non delivery, meant that in 2004 all European networks with MMS services admitted it wasn't making money - although it still pervades today.

Nokia 7650

By 2007, text messaging had become more popular than making phone calls in the US, with Americans averaging 218 texts to 213 phone calls in December. Nielsen reported that the disparity had grown to 357 versus 204 in 2008.

The numbers, predictably, continued to spiral out of control as mobile phone use exploded: The Mobile Data Association reporting that 56.9 billion SMS messages were sent in 2007, rising to 96.8 billion by 2009.

Is this the end?

However, July 2009 saw the launch of messaging app WhatsApp - which was seen as a massive blow to text messaging.

Messaging was free, allowing you to send text via a data (be it 3G or Wi-Fi) connection. By the end of 2009, 1 million people were already using WhatsApp.

Over 1 billion messages were handled by WhatsApp in October 2011, perhaps contributing to falling numbers in SMS sent on Christmas day.

That year Finland, Hong Kong, Spain and the Netherlands all reported that fewer messages were sent.

The Text Message: Merry Christmas to global revolutionary

According to Nielsen the same age group that originally drove the love for the text is now pushing the popularity of mobile messaging apps like SnapChat - teenagers.

It isn't all bad news for text messaging though. Reports suggest that it has generated over $585 billion globally, with forecasts of a further $1 trillion over the next seven years.

This might be in no small part down to Fred Lidgren, a guy with the world record for text messages sent in a month.

Mr Lidgren managed to send 566,607 texts, or 18,887 a day, 787 per hour or 13 texts per minute.

Are we ready to say goodbye to the text message?

Andrew Acklin and Deepak Sharma held the record previously, with 200,052 and 182,689 sent and received messages respectively.

What next?

With the rise of mobile messaging giants WhatsApp, Kik, Facebook and SnapChat, just how much longer will we all be sending texts?

The rise of mobile technologies such as 4G and easily accessible Wi-Fi may lead to more messages sent via data connections rather than standard networks.

The future is clearly going to be all about IM, but that doesn't mean the humble text is a goner. The short character formation is universal across handsets and can easily send information without needing to worry about whether another person has the right app installed.

The number of texts sent in the UK will fall again this year... but it will still reach 140 billion. Sure, IM now still shoves out over 300 billion missives, but that's across a number of platforms.

Until one service overtakes all the others to become the champion way of communicating, we'll still be texting for years to come.

  • For now it seems that text messaging is safe, but just how much longer will we all be sending text messages, how about in 2030?
Messaging Text Messaging SMS MMS Snap Chat WhatsApp Facebook IM Email Orbitel 901 Nokia Nokia 1011 Nokia 9000i Communicator BlackBerry cpwhub cpwcarousel phonescarousel-en-gb
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