20 years of SMS messaging

4 minute read

Today marks the 20th birthday of SMS, the short, unassuming 160 character message which had a staggering effect upon modern communications.

The very first SMS message was a seasonally fitting “Merry Christmas” sent to Richard Jarvis of Vodafone by British engineer Neil Papworth on 3rd December 1992. It wasn’t until 1993 though that commercial handsets capable of sending and receiving SMS messages became available (thank you Nokia!).

In the early years, SMS was limited by the inability to send messages across different networks – something that remained until the telcos figured out that people were willing to pay for sending SMS messages, and that this was a potential goldmine for them.

Once that barrier was removed, and the T9 predictive text system launched in 1995, making it much easier to send messages (with the occasional amusing substitution!), SMS usage was set to explode and by 2010 over 6 trillion SMS messages a year were being sent.

That equates to a huge amount of money for the mobile companies, with UK networks still charging around 10p per SMS on their standard tariffs. It’s generated billions of pounds in revenue.

When you consider that an SMS message is only a tiny 256 bytes of data*, which is why they are limited to 160 characters**, on size alone it even makes international data roaming rates look like good value. 1 Megabyte of data at the equivalent price would cost £410!***

The mass appeal of SMS took many by surprise, but it caught the imagination of a generation and offered a rapid, succinct and instant form of communication – similar to what we see in Twitter (which has its roots in SMS messaging, hence the character limit in tweets). Little known, irrelevant fact – 13 years ago I asked the girl who is now my wife out by text message.

With so many people carrying smartphones, there have been rumours of the demise of SMS, but I’m convinced it has a long life left. Smartphone adoption is high and growing, but it’s nowhere near 100%, even in the most developed countries, so SMS still reaches a wider audience than alternatives like app-based systems.

Like email (whose death has also repeatedly been mistakenly predicted), SMS is an open standard, accessible across many different devices and networks – something that Twitter et al. are not, so there’s no danger of someone suddenly deciding to change their policy and wiping out a whole section of the ecosystem.

So, happy 20th birthday SMS, here’s to many more years!


* Getting my geek on: 160 bytes are used for the message, the remaining bytes are used for the header information which contains data like the sender and destination numbers as well as other data about the message itself.

** In fact, due to the vagaries of international character sets, sometimes fewer as certain characters take two bytes to encode. Yes, this makes building an SMS gateway quite difficult.

*** 256 bytes = 0.000244141 Megabytes, google “bytes in 1 MB” to see Google’s handy conversion calculator. It’s pretty cool.