A Brief History of Texting

December 10, 2014

Of all the phone apps available today, text messaging reigns. Apps that send messages through the SMS (Short Message Service) protocol are still by far the most widely used phone applications. 81% of cell phone users text, and do so just as often as they make phone calls. SMS use on today’s scale is a cultural phenomenon with its roots in a long series of technological advances.

In 1992, developer Neil Papworth sent the first text message. The message, “Merry Christmas”, successfully reached his colleague Richard Jarvis at Vodafone. The breakthrough warranted a party, but apparently, not an invitation for Papworth. As with many technological breakthroughs, the developers celebrated a day’s work well done, but didn’t at all foresee the impact of their efforts.

The technology had been in the works since 1984, and was developed by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert of the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM). However, GSM’s first handsets didn’t allow for user texting. Nokia changed that in 1993 when they introduced the first GSM phone line with user-sending SMS. Four years later, Nokia would introduce the first phone with a full keyboard.

It was not until 1999 that users could reliably text across networks; this sparked a dramatic increase in use. In 1995, the average American cell phone user sent 0.4 texts per month. By 2000, that number would soar to 35 texts per month.

According to a 2011 Pew study, young adults are by far the most avid texters, with 18 to 29 year-old cell phone owners sending and receiving an average of 87.7 texts per day. However, even those in the 65+ age range send and receive around 5 messages per day.

Why has texting had such a lasting appeal? Texting is quick, casual and to the point. The written word also allows for more creativity than more recent technologies such as video calls. While many apps are commonly used, SMS is unique. No other app is a universal cell phone feature. Texting, it seems, has come to fill a crucial communication niche.