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The SMS is 20 years old - but still lives on - TechNow

The SMS is 20 years old – but still lives on


The Short Messaging Service (or SMS for short), has now reached it’s second decade, and could be considered one of few technologies that has aged well with time.  With the advent of 3G you’d think users would have flocked to services that send messages via the internet rather than a specific phone-to-phone protocol. But no, the SMS somehow still lives on.

The first SMS was sent from a computer over the Vodafone network in 1992, but only one guy got to read this message on his mobile phone, and it was wishing him a Merry Christmas.  The service didn’t reach commercial viability until late 2003 where it first appeared on the BT Cellnet service (which later changed to O2).  With an initial mess of billing systems and lack of network compatibility, SMS was slow off the starting blocks.

In 2011 an estimated 7 trillion text messages were sent worldwide making it an industry worth well over £175bn which is only like to increase further still with the huge uptake in mobile technology throughout the developing world. The use of SMS only really took off around 1999 when operators lifted restrictions that previously meant messages could only be sent to other uses on the same network. Since then sending texts has hugely outweighed calling someone and actually having to go through the hassle of a proper conversation.

Networks still defend the SMS by saying that it is still the most widely compatible medium for exchanging digital messages and they’re absolutely right.  You’d think that now in 2012, people would be shunning this ageing system in favour of the many other services available such as Blackberry Messenger and WhatsApp but this seems to still be far from reality.

Even though smartphones have been thoroughly mainstream since at least 2007 (when Apple and Google launched their first smartphones), there’s still a huge number of mobile phone users throughout the world who only have access to mobile phones with much more basic functionality.

Blackberry were the first ones to bring messaging up to speed with its handsets by offering the BBM messaging service in late 2005.  The BBM service uses a unique PIN for users to contact each other with and provides an encrypted instant messaging system that included multi-user conversations and contact lists. Unfortunately  BBM’s issues are much the same as that of the early SMS system – it’s only available on one platform.

New IM apps such as WhatsApp are fast becoming a replacement that covers all major platforms in the smartphone world and it offers a very similar experience that Blackberry offers, but rather than assigning a unique PIN, connects users together using your telephone number.  WhatsApp is far and away the multi-platform app of choice and has recently been involved in rumours with various big names including Facebook who have their own instant-messaging service available for users of the social network.

You could argue that instant messaging outside of social networks will be almost unnecessary with the rise of services such as Twitter, but then you don’t really want to be tweeting everything in public – especially private conversations with the wife or girlfriend!

One-to-one messaging services will always have their place but can only truly take over when blanket coverage of 3G services are available, and as I’ve noted previously – this still seems to be a little way off.  So, who’s willing to bet it reaches 30?



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