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.PT1M12S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2asje 620 349 December 4, 2012
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.
Despite the rise of social networking on mobiles, text messaging remains incredibly popular.Telstra spokesman
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. Photo: Paul Harris
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. Photo: Sean Davey
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.