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Too soon to say CU later to SMS

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Asher Moses

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Texting turns 20

20 years after Neil Papworth sent the very first text message, which was 'Merry Christmas', mobile users show no sign of slowing down their textual activity any time soon.

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The first SMS message was sent 20 years ago this week. In Australia, we've been LOLing and WTFing for even less time than that – but some are already questioning how many birthdays the technology has left.

The world's first text message – "Merry Christmas" – was sent on December 3, 1992 by British software engineer Neil Papworth. He said he was amazed at how the technology had developed.

In Australia, Telstra introduced SMS in 1994 but customers could only read messages, not respond to them. In 1995, Australian carriers had begun allowing SMS messages to be sent from mobile phones but only between customers of the same carrier.

Back in the day ... texting in 2003.

Back in the day ... texting in 2003.

It took until April 2000 for Telstra, Optus and Vodafone to co-operate and launch inter-carrier SMS, which set off huge growth in usage. Telstra said between 2002 and 2012 the number of SMS messages sent on its network grew from 1.01 billion to 12.05 billion.

But the rise of smartphones and fast data connections has provided stiff competition to the humble SMS, with global SMS traffic growth falling and almost half of Australian smartphone users accessing richer, free messaging apps like WhatsApp on their devices. Earlier this year WhatsApp reported 10 billion messages were sent by its users globally on a single day.

It isn't over for SMS though – the most recent figures from the Australian Communications and Media Authority show SMS and MMS message volume increased by 23 per cent in the year to June 2011 to reach 36.3 billion.

Old school ... SMS-ing in the year 2000.

Old school ... SMS-ing in the year 2000.

Early on, the SMS was credited with saving the lives of lost tourists and adventurers but was soon derided for its effect on language. Clumsy number pads encouraged people to type using abbreviations like "b4", "C U L8r" and "gr8" and it wasn't long before teachers started complaining about students using the same language in assignments and exams.

But as predictive text systems became more advanced and smartphones heralded the rise of full QWERTY keyboards on mobile devices, the issue has become far less pronounced. Now it is easier to type proper language than abbreviations as most words are stored in the phone's dictionary.

Today, with the rise of WhatsApp, Viber, BlackBerry Messenger, Apple iMessage, Facebook Messenger and others, it's more fashionable to be talking about the death of texting itself than the death of language.

Other texting-related issues remain, such as bullying, "sexting" and texting while driving.

Research firm Gartner has said SMS is "progressively eroding" while Ovum said last year that mobile messaging was fast approaching an "inflection point" as consumers moved from SMS to internet-based messaging services.

But the telcos have responded by making texting in many cases free on their plans, and they say that reports of the death of SMS are greatly exaggerated.

"Despite the rise of social networking on mobiles, text messaging remains incredibly popular," a Telstra spokesman said.

"In 2012, Telstra customers sent 12.05 billion text messages. That's approximately twice the volume sent by Telstra customers just 5 years ago."

Vodafone said 45 million SMSs were delivered daily through its network and over 16 billion a year. Optus said its customers sent 70 million SMSs messages on Christmas Day 2011, a 14 per cent increase from the previous year.

Papworth was chosen by chance 20 years ago to send the first message to a director at Vodafone in Britain after he had worked on developing the software. Mobile phones did not at that point have keyboards, so he typed out the message on a computer keyboard.

Vodafone wanted to develop the technology as an improvement on paging, Papworth said, and no one realised then how it would change the culture of communication.

"They thought it would be used as an executive pager so that secretaries could get hold of their bosses while they were out and about and they could send them messages and tell them what to do and where to go," Papworth told BBC radio.

35 comments

  • Nah - LOLing was common on BBSes in the 1980s - at least. Adopted by SMS in the 1990s

    Commenter
    Ian
    Date and time
    December 04, 2012, 12:54PM
    • Has anyone ever texted the letters LOL while actually laughing out loud, or even smiling?

      Commenter
      yeah-no
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 4:31PM
  • Why do we say '..texted me'... 'texted you'.... afterall we dont say 1 fish 2 fishes.... or 1 sheep, 2 sheeps... zzz it's very frustrating!

    Commenter
    maylaila
    Date and time
    December 04, 2012, 1:11PM
    • So you're saying that 'text' is a noun and a verb. If it really upsets you, when someone says - "they texted me", respond with "With a permanent marker?"

      Commenter
      Dabug
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 1:41PM
    • Text in that context is a verb. The examples you gave are nouns.

      Commenter
      Barney
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 1:51PM
    • "texted me" and "texted you" makes the word "text" a verb (or "doing word"). When you talk about "fish", "fishes", "sheep", "sheeps" etc you are talking about "plurals" or "more than 1 thing of the same kind" (whether they are grammatically correct or not, is besides my point). Can't compare a verb to a plural form and besides, saying "texted me" and "texted you" is the same as saying "I googled it" or "You googled it". English grammar 101.

      Commenter
      HonkyYonky
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 1:51PM
    • The search for the missing pronoun.....I sent you a text has the correct pronoun. I texted you is a gramatical fail and bogun. Like saying "I never wrote anyone". Its as bogun as Americans who bemoan why nobody in Europe speak American. I imagine it has its roots in the homeland of stupidity - The USA. "I never wrote anyone" sounds just as hillbilly as texted.

      Commenter
      Paul
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 2:01PM
    • @Paul

      breathe, breathe. Actively seek ways to accept others. Try to have fun in your life.

      Commenter
      Friend of USA
      Location
      somewhere calm
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 2:28PM
    • @Paul - bogan

      unsophisticated, flanno wearing afficionado of moccasins (moccas): Shazza is a bogan! Compare bevan, bog2, chigger, booner, boonie, feral, westie.

      http://www.abc.net.au/wordmap/

      Commenter
      GeoffWhere
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 04, 2012, 5:13PM
  • The SMS is not dead yet and remains a good way of ensuring simple messages with factual information are clearly understood - like dates, times, locations, titles.

    Commenter
    NSS Observer
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    December 04, 2012, 1:13PM

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