A Short History of Texting

Texting has become a global phenomenon. Although text messages are very short, limited to just 160 characters per message, they're one of the most popular means of communication in the world. In 2010, 6.1 trillion SMS messages were sent, which means roughly 193000 SMS per second, according to CNN.com. The estimated income of cell phone service providers from text messaging that same year was $114.6 billion globally. However, very few people know when, where, and how was the system born.

The First Steps

The concept of text messaging through GSM networks dates back to the 1980s. The initial concept was developed in 1984 by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert. The idea was to use existing infrastructure to transmit text messages by using unused resources in the system. This is the source of the character limit in text messaging. The most ingenious part of the solution was that it only required the service providers to upgrade the systems software.

However, text messaging was implemented slowly. The first SMS message was sent on 3 December, 1992 over the Vodafone GSM Network in the United Kingdom, and contained the words "Merry Christmas." The first commercial SMS system was offered to consumers in Finland in 1993.  The business text grew at a snail's pace at first, in no small part due to the limited hardware base, as most of the customers did not have cell phones able to send and receive SMS messages.

The Service Grows

The adoption of text messaging became faster as more customers transitioned to better, more capable mobile phones.  Another factor was that operators started setting up reliable, transparent charging systems for text messaging that allowed them to lift restrictions on sending text messages between service providers and reduce the incidence of fraud.
By the end of 2000, the average number of text messages reached 35 monthly per user. By comparison, in 1995, the average GSM customer sent only 0.4 messages per month. The use of the service grew exponentially. By December 2006, over 205 million messages were sent in the United Kingdom alone. The growth was boosted by expanding the text messaging service to more networks including 3G.

The Modern-Day SMS

Text messaging is a multi-billion dollar industry today. Text messages are used for a variety of purposes. What started as a way for enabling communication between GSM customers became one of the most widespread technologies across the world. Text messages are used as security tokens, notifications, news reports, and even tracking devices. Text messages can indeed be used to try to honor of the cell phone. The so-called silent SMS does not show up on the display of the cell phone, nor does it trigger the signal that a message was received. It is quite popular, too: in 2010, the German authorities sent nearly 0.5 million of these text messages.

However, the position of text messaging is not unassailable. The biggest disadvantage of text messaging is that it is very expensive:  customers pay on a per-message basis. By comparison, smart phone, tablet, and laptop users can use software that provides the exact same functionality, or even more, completely free of charge. As access to broadband Internet becomes more commonplace, it is likely that the use of SMS will diminish. However, for now, it enjoys a very strong position on the market.
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