The joy of txt: 20 years of SMS

By John Naughton

Text messaging is impossible to avoid these days, as it marks its 20th anniversary. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Text messaging is impossible to avoid these days, as it marks its 20th anniversary. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The humble SMS is 20 years old ... and a far more important invention than the flashier inventions that have followed it, writes John Naughton

Here's a question: what's bigger and far more important than Facebook? Hint: it's very low-tech and doesn't need a smartphone or even an internet connection. And this year marks its 20th birthday, which means that in internet time it's 140 years old. Oh, and it doesn't involve LOLcats either.

Got it yet? It's SMS - text messaging to you and me. Or txt msg, if you prefer. Two-thirds of the world's population - that's over 4 billion people - have access to it because that's the number of people who have mobile phones, and even the cheapest, clunkiest handset can send SMS messages.

It's had a much bigger impact on our lives than anything dreamed up in Silicon Valley.

Interestingly, Silicon Valley played almost no role in it. SMS was the brainchild of a European intergovernmental initiative. The first mobile phones were analogue devices, and the market was bedevilled by incompatible technologies and protocols - rather like the early market in fixed-line telephony in the United States before the AT&T monopoly was established.

But in 1982 a European telephony conference decided to tackle the problem.

It set up the Groupe Special Mobile (GSM) committee and established a group of communications engineers in Paris.

Five years later, 13 European countries signed an agreement to develop and deploy a common mobile telephone system across Europe. The result was GSM - a unified, open, standard-based mobile network larger than that in the United States. The first GSM call was made by the Finnish prime minister in 1991, and the first GSM handsets were approved for sale in May 1992.

The idea for SMS emerged during the GSM project. It was based around a really neat trick - to transport messages on the signalling paths needed to organise telephony during periods when those control channels were quiet.

This was a fantastic idea because it meant that there was no extra cost involved in transporting the messages. The only restriction was that they had to be short - no more than 160 seven-bit characters. So SMS was built into the GSM system from the beginning.

The strange thing was that almost nobody paid any attention at first. As an early mobile phone adopter (I could never understand why telephones had to be tethered to the wall like goats), I noticed SMS but thought it feeble; it looked like brain-damaged email. And it appeared that most other mobile users thought the same: what could one possibly do with 160 characters? As a result, SMS use remained low for years.

The reason for this became obvious only with hindsight. In the early days of mobile phones only adults could have them - because they were only available on contract and you had to be over 18 to qualify. And adults didn't seem to know what text messages were for.

Then, in 1996, something changed: pay-as-you-go sim cards were introduced.

Suddenly teenagers could acquire mobile phones. And when they got them, boy did they know what SMS was for. It was a tipping point. The graph turned skywards, and it's been going in that direction ever since. SMS is now the world's most intensively used data communication technology. One source claims that over 6 trillion texts were sent in 2010, for example, and that was more than triple the number sent in 2007.

The story of GSM and SMS has interesting lessons for technology policy.

GSM came about largely because of Europe-wide governmental action: the establishment of a continent-wide technical standard effectively created an enormous industry and gave Europe a significant lead in mobile telephony.

So the right-wing mantra that governments should keep their noses out of technology policy and leave it to the market is sometimes wrong.

Second, the story of SMS shows that the people who effectively invent a technology - in the sense of determining its use and making it viable - are not so much the engineers who design it as the consumers who discover what it's really for. The telephone was originally conceived as a broadcast medium, whereas radio was conceived as a point-to-point medium. Exactly the opposite turned out to be true in both cases. And it was teenagers who "invented" SMS.

Finally, we need to stop being dazzled by the tech sensation du jour (Facebook, Twitter, Angry Birds, OMGPOP etc) and focus instead on something mundane that really works, reaches everyone, provides valuable services for poor people, exploits nobody and is based on a sustainable business model.

So here's the most important msg 4 2day: txt is gr8.

- Observer

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