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The text message turns 22, but are its days numbered?

Text message turns 22 - main pic

Earlier this month the humble text message turned an incredible 22 years old. It was on December 3, 1992 that 22 year old Neil Papworth sent the first fifteen character message that simply read “merry christmas”. How far technology has come in such a short space of time, with SMS now one of the dominant forms of mobile communication that generates billions of dollars in revenue and is expected to surpass 9 trillion messages sent globally by 2016.

Back in 1992 nobody could have predicted the explosion in SMS traffic that would happen over the next few decades, with every network and smartphone in the world now capable of sending the short 160-character messages that we are all familiar with. Since its launch, SMS quickly became a cornerstone of mobile operators’ revenues and even more important to their profit line; it is estimated that in 2011, SMS accounted for 16% of the total mobile revenue that was generated by Western European operators.

Looking back, it’s perhaps no surprise that SMS became so widely adopted – it’s relatively cheap and enjoys universal support on every device. It’s also the only messaging system that you can guarantee is supported by the person on the other end, despite the availability of messaging apps such as WhatsApp. Its ubiquitous support and simplicity has certainly helped SMS maintain its longevity, and in that time the technology has even found some surprising uses that nobody could have foreseen 22 years ago.

SMS can even be credited with the rise of “text-speak” as a convenient way to succinctly convey something in a message: OMG is an example that springs to mind…

Why 160 characters?

The story of why a single text message is limited to just 160-characters is an interesting one, based on some rather unscientific tests by the research engineers but also the limitations of the technology at the time. It was Friedhelm Hillebrand, chairman of the non-voice services committee for the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) who was responsible for designing a system for sending and receiving text messages.

Text message turns 22 - Friedhelm Hillebrand
Friedhelm Hillebrand was sure 160 characters was sufficient for text messages.


In the late 80’s and early 90’s, mobile networks were extremely limited and there simply wasn’t the bandwidth to send sizeable messages over cellular connections. As a result, Hillebrand was tasked with finding an alternative and efficient system that could handle short messages, but one that could also be supported across every network operator and phone…a tall order indeed.

One approach was to utilise one of the relatively unused radio channels (known as SS7) that was already being used for reception and signal strength messages. “We were looking for a cheap implementation,” said Hillebrand. “Most of the time, nothing happens on this control link… it was free capacity on the system.”

Hillebrand came up with a fixed maximum size of 160 characters, not by any concrete scientific methods, but by carefully analysing that other common form of communication – the postcard. He found that most postcards contained around 150-160 characters, but he also confirmed his belief with a unique typewriter-based experiment which saw him type out random questions and answers. He discovered that most of the time, 160 characters was sufficient.

“This is perfectly sufficient,” he recalls thinking. But the engineers working on the project (which began in 1985) could only manage to squeeze 128 characters into the messages – but with a little optimisation, such as reducing the character set that could be used, they managed to reach 160 characters – the limit that we still have today for an individual SMS.

Generation text

The mobile networks were caught off guard by the success of SMS, which was driven by the younger generation who immediately took to it despite the limitations of the keyboards at the time (long before T9 predictive text, BlackBerry style keyboards or touch screens caught on), in which multiple characters were assigned to the a key.

Text message turns 22 - Monthly SMS UK
Despite a decrease in volume in 2013, the average number of SMS messages per person remains high.


Teenagers and ‘Millennials’ in particular took to texting more than anyone else, which led to it overtaking the telephone call in popularity. “A generation of e-mailing, followed by an explosion in texting, has pushed the telephone conversation into serious decline, creating new tensions between baby boomers and Millennials — those in their teens, 20s and early 30s,” according to an article by the Washington Post.

Others have echoed those sentiments calling the telephone call a dying institution, due the surge in text usage: the number of text messages sent monthly in the U.S. ballooned from 14 billion in 2000 to 188 billion in 2010. As if more proof were needed, Time magazine estimated that Americans between 18-29 send and receive 88 text messages per day compared with just 17 phone calls (even 17 phone calls sounds like a lot, compared to most people I know). This frequency decreases as we get older, but even for those over 65 the ratio of texting beats calling by a factor of 5:3.

A Time survey found nearly one third of respondents said they would rather send a text message than use the phone – even with people they know well. Can you think of all the times that you’d rather just fire off a quick message (whether that’s an SMS or using a messaging app) than make a phone call? It’s a common phenomenon – call somebody and inevitably you get the buy tone followed by the obligatory “I’m busy” message.

The rise of messaging apps

Even though texting remains popular, messaging apps are eating SMS’s lunch. WhatsApp is currently the world’s most used with 600 million active monthly users followed closely by QQ Mobile and Facebook Messenger at 500 million. These apps are still gaining in popularity, even as text messaging in the UK fell for the first time in 2013…

Text message turns 22 - Messaging Apps
WhatsApp is the world’s number 1 messaging app.


The issue with such apps of course is that you can’t guarantee everyone you know has it installed. The popularity of these apps tends to change over time and there are huge regional differences. For example, LINE is most popular in Japan and Thailand, while Facebook Messenger has fairly global popularity mainly because it was foisted on Facebook users as a replacement for messaging within the Facebook app itself. That episode actually caused an uproar by angry Facebook users, though anyone that uses the messaging app will know that it’s actually quite good.

Text message turns 22 - Instant Messenger Apps


But even though apps are killing off the SMS, there are some apps which do much more than simply replace the text with a richer experience – apps which are able to parse traditional SMS conversations and attach contextual information such as your availability and travel plans. This might help traditional operators cling onto some of their declining SMS revenue by adding valuable new features for customers and even creating new m-commerce opportunities – that’s if subscribers agree to have their SMS messages analysed and dissected by their operator. BlackBerry’s BBM is also positioned as a way for operators to combat the reduction in SMS revenues through customisation of branding, content, and services within a standard framework.

But just looking at the raw numbers of messages sent, if we look at the volume in China over the last year you’d hardly be aware that SMS was in danger because 62 billion text messages were sent in October alone. It’s no wonder the networks are keen not to hang onto SMS revenue streams for as long as possible.

Text message turns 22 - SMS volumes in China
Text message volumes in China are simply staggering.


Are text messages a dying technology?

For person to person communication, there is no doubt that SMS is on the way out, spurred on by instant messages (which incidentally surpassed the number of texts sent in 2012). However, A2P (application to person) messages continue to grow as a segment. For example, these include the type of messages that you receive when your bank sends you a confirmation code or account alert. But is it really wise for businesses today to invest in A2P SMS as a way to reach their customers?

There were 8 trillion SMS messages sent last year, and as an established way to communicate it seems SMS will be around for a long time yet. Even if it eventually falls out of favour entirely, its influence will still be felt in related technologies and applications. Today, SMS is still the only way to reach everybody with a mobile phone – it’s a lot less invasive than a phone call, and means more to customers than an email.

For the time being at least we’re not quite ready to say goodbye to the SMS. So happy 22nd birthday!

As always, if you have any comments or opinions on this article, please let us know in the comments below.

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