Texting Turns 22

Half a lifetime ago, 22-year-old Neil Papworth sent the first ever short message service (SMS). His fifteen-character missive – ‘merry christmas’ – was sent to colleague Richard Jarvis on December 3, 1992.

This act was considered important enough to mark the occasion with a party but not important enough to invite its author. The truth is, nobody really saw the significance of what they were working on.

Twenty-two years and quadrillions of text messages later, SMS is the king of electronic communications. It makes tens of billions of dollars for network providers and connects billions of people around the world. Annual text traffic is expected to reach 9.4 trillion by 2016.

And why wouldn’t SMS statistics be so impressive? Cheap, effective and widely available, the rude health in which texting finds itself in 2014 was patently obvious in 1992. Or at least that’s what hindsight bias tells us. The truth is a little more complicated…

‘Perfectly Sufficient’

Those twenty characters summed up, with stereotypically Teutonic concision, Friedhelm Hillebrand’s thoughts on the optimal length of the standardized text message protocol he and a dozen colleagues were working on in 1985.

As chairman of the non-voice services committee for the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), Hillebrand was tasked with developing a technology capable of transmitting, receiving and displaying text messages. The limited bandwidth available on wireless networks, which at the time were the sole reserve of car phones, meant Hillebrand and his team had to find a data pipeline capable of sending short messages across all cellular carriers and to all mobile phones.

The lightbulb moment came with the idea of harnessing an existing radio channel that was already used to alert cellphones about reception strength. “We were looking [for a] cheap implementation,” said Hillebrand in a 2009 LA Times interview. “Most of the time, nothing happens on this control link… it was free capacity on the system.”

Hillebrand’s ‘perfectly sufficient’ character limit was 160, a number now as standard to electronic communications as 24 frames are to movies, or 12 bars are to blues. The golden number was hit upon after studying word-counts on a decidedly low-tech platform: the humble postcard. Most postcards contain less than 160 characters. It was already an intuitive message-length for people, so it made sense to stick with that limit.

Papworth concurs. “We tested that you could send 160 characters, but who was ever going to send more than 160 characters to say ‘If you’re not home in 20 minutes, your dinner’s in the dog’?’ Especially bearing in mind this was before predictive text,” says Papworth.

An Accidental Success?

The offhand, charmingly humble way in which these world-changing engineers talk about SMS is indicative of the circuitous route it took to market. Projections were about as accurate as the first incarnations of predictive text (not very). Market research was practically non-existent.

When Papworth sent his Yuletide greeting in 1992, the technology had already been in development for seven years. Early GSM handsets did not support SMS, and when they began to, the protocol was only used to inform recipients of a voicemail. It took a further seven years for cross-network SMS to become available.

As hard as it is to fathom in a world of instant startup success, where Instagram is valued at (and bought for) a billion dollars despite never having publicly hinted at a monetization strategy, SMS nearly didn’t happen. It was so slow out of the gate, it threatened to simply give up and head back to the stable.

It took operators a while to “realize the profit they could make from charging more for sending outside the network,” according to Papworth.

“I don’t think even creators of the GSM standards would have imagined all the uses it has been put to in the last 22 years.” Neil Papworth

Nonetheless, it’s hard to cast your mind back to a time when big investment money wasn’t pouring into the technology sector. This is what makes those pioneering Europeans so special. Nobody had any idea whether it would work. SMS wasn’t even developed with widespread commercial applications in mind – it was intended to be an internal tool for businesses with an eye on the future.

It’s safe to say the carriers were flabbergasted by the popularity of SMS, especially among younger users. During the 90s and early 2000s, teenagers adopted the technology in droves. It was they who developed text speak, further carving out a niche in which young people could communicate on a level not fully understood by their parents. The technology may have been new, but the independent impulse was as old as time.

Even Papworth was oblivious to the full potential of the technology he helped bring to bear.

“As a techy nerd, I was just focused on getting my job done. I never thought of why people wanted to do this – my goal was to ensure that they could do this,” says Papworth. “I don’t think even creators of the GSM standards would have imagined all the uses it has been put to in the last 22 years.”

Despite the rise of instant messaging services like WhatsApp, the creators of SMS justifiably see their baby as the ultimate app.

The new kids on the block may seem impressive, but in terms of market penetration they can’t compete with the two-decade head start and cross-platform accessibility of texting. As Papworth says of WhatsApp et al, “there’s no guarantee all of your 300 friends have installed it, or even that they have a data plan.”

If you want to communicate with your dad, your friends and your nephews and nieces, there are a plethora of options. But the only one you can guarantee will reach all of them is SMS. That’s why we’re still talking about it.

So does Papworth’s non-invitation to the first SMS party still rankle? The question’s a non-starter – he was so focused on the job he didn’t care a jot about missing the festivities. For him, it was just another successful day’s work: “That was good enough for me. And it’s still the same ethos I have today 22 years later.”

Editor’s Note: Nic Denholm is senior editor at cloud telephony services provider CallFire. He interviewed Neil Papworth, who sent the first text message, in October 2014.