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In 1992 the first text message was sent from a PC to a phone on the Vodafone network. Neil Papworth sent the message “Merry Christmas” to the phone of Richard Jarvis. 20 years later we each send an average of 40 messages a month; some may send thousands a month. Why do we love the SMS, how has it affected our lives and is it for the better or worse?
Although Neil Papworth sent the first text message 20 years ago using the standards we use today, the birth of the idea is said to have come from a gentleman by the name of Raina Fortini who being financially broke at the time utilised a clever 2 way communication system using the pager. Pagers were a one-way communications device used in the 80s to send short digit only messages; this message was usually a number to which the receiver would then ring to speak to the sender. Raina realised that by turning the pager upside down he could send simple messages by using the upside down numbers as letters (I’m sure we’ve all written 5318008 on our calculators in maths!) For a year this was his only means of communication with a friend in Florida and they managed to create a crude language from upside down numbers. An amazing example of technology created through necessity.
Today we send around 8 billion text messages a day, it has become the biggest form of mobile phone communication used worldwide and its strict 160 character limit has given birth to micro-blogging services such as Twitter. Aside from one to one communication we use SMS to vote on TV shows, buy tickets for trains and receive alerts such as: sport scores, latest news, train timetables and hospital appointments. You can even contact the emergency services via SMS. Although not strictly SMS, images and video can be sent using a similar protocol.
It has also led to the growth of ‘sexting’ and ‘cyber bullying’ as it gives voice to those less confident over the phone or face to face. Although these are unwanted side effects, allowing for greater communication between people is an amazing side effect.
It has also caused a massive change in the way we write and communicate. Due to older phones not having full QWERTY keyboards and instead only have a 0-9 dial pad users in the past had to use slower forms of typing, usually pressing certain keys a number of times in order to get the correct letter. To speed this up users created a form of shorthand such as ‘ur’ meaning ‘you are’. Although this wasn’t the first time such shorthand had been used as teenagers developed acronyms in chat rooms such as LOL and ASL to speed up typing. However the limited keyboard on a phone made shorthand a necessity for many and has now entered into the lexicon of the language of today, annoying many teachers and purists.
The price of text messaging is regarded as extortionate by many. At around 10p a message and a message size of up to 160 bytes it costs the user approximately £655.36 per MB in data use! With most providers in the UK charging around £1 per MB outside of any allowance you can see why phone companies love SMS as 20% of their profit is generated from this service. You’d think that they’d earn more as the data price is over 600x what they’d charge for conventional data use. But as most people have text allowances ranging in the hundreds and even thousands, phone companies rely on customers who are not savvy and don’t take out text bundles as part of their plan and pay by the message. So make sure you’re using an adequate SMS allowance, even many Pay As You Go services give a SMS bundle as part of the plan.
For those using smartphones an alternative would be to use an instant messenger service. Whatsapp is a very popular service that allows you to send free messages to other phones with the Whatsapp application installed by utilising your phones data connection. Whatsapp can be installed on a number of devices and isn’t just limited to the big boys such as Android and iPhone. Windows Mobile, Blackberry and even Nokia’s aging Symbian can all join in the fun. Whatsapp also allows the user to send images, video and audio for free, something that carries a large premium when done via traditional methods. Another more traditional method is via email, but emails are not tied to a phone and people have many different email addresses.
With the advent of constant data connections and apps such as Whatsapp you would think that the future is nigh for SMS; why pay for a service you can get for free? Well the one big advantage SMS has over every other service available is the fact that virtually every mobile phone on the planet can send and receive SMS; it is built into the 2G specification and I have yet to see anyone use a 1G phone in this day and age. However SMS will need to compete if it is to remain relevant and with SMS being such a large part in a phone company’s profit they aren’t going to want to see it die anytime soon.
SMS has been a revolution in the way we communicate. From what gave birth to Twitter gave birth to the social uprisings of the Middle East in 2011. It has changed our language and the way we interact. It has also unfortunately led to deaths due to drivers giving more attention to their phone than to the road. It has been a World changer and without it our lives would be very different.