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Twenty Years of the Short Messaging Service

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Note -- this news article is more than a year old.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the first text message being received by a mobile phone on a commercial network.

That first message had to be sent from a computer though, as it was still not possible for mobile phones to send text messages, just to receive them. Such was the thinking at the time that SMS would be a type of paging service, with messages sent to handsets via a paging bureau.

No one anticipated at the time that this curious bolt-on to the GSM voice standard using a bit of spare capacity in the networks would ever be much more than a niche service.

Now the text message generates over USD100 billion for the mobile industry and an estimated 8 trillion messages were sent last year. It underpined the growth in mobile ringtones as it could be used as a carrier to bill customers for services, it made mobile data easier by acting as a carrier for handset configuration settings, it is the hidden side of the less successful MMS, which still needed a silent SMS to trigger the multimedia content download.

That first SMS was sent by a 22-year old technician, Neil Papworth sitting in an office in Vodafone's UK head office, and was sent to technical director Richard Jarvis's Orbitel 901 phone.

The message said simply "Merry Christmas"

Today the SMS is so ubiquitous as a communications service that holiday greetings are increasingly often sent by a short text message, and the popularity of such bursts of high levels of traffic have driven the networks to regularly upgrade their SMSC's to cope with demand.

For your correspondent, it was the ability to send mobile data configuration settings to GSM handsets that solved a huge customer difficulty - how to type in strange ISP settings into a small handset phone that would be used as a GSM modem to download emails to a laptop.

Sitting in a Vodafone customer care office, I would laboriously type the settings into a Nokia Communicator -- the only handset that could send the correctly configured SMS -- and send three text messages to the customer, usually waiting impatiently in the Vodafone store. At the time is seemed almost magical that a distant office would be able to "fix" a mobile phone in that way. Today it is outrage if a handset needs to have mobile data settings entered manually.

What started off as a niche business service swiftly grew to become a mass market and usually youth oriented product, but its very success is threatening its long term downfall as OTT services and mobile website services such as Twitter grow in popularity.

However, SMS retains one huge advantage over all its challengers - it just works. No need to open an account with a 3rd party service, no need to check if the recipient is on the same platform - just type a message into a phone and send it to another phone number.

It will arrive, even if the recipient is on another network and half way round the world.

That ubiquity, its deep integration into the core of the mobile networks, and its ease of use will keep SMS going strong long after many challengers have burnt through their investors cash and gone bust.

In 40 years time, it might not be called SMS, it might be hidden under layers of front end services - but the SMS will still exist.

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Tags: sms