Virtually every person with a cell phone has sent a text message by now, but 25 years ago just one person had done so. That’s when engineer Neil Papworth sent the first SMS, on December 3rd, 1992. What started as a curious implementation of existing cellular standards eventually grew into a huge part of our daily communication. Now, what comes next as the influence of SMS wanes?
On that fateful day just over 25 years ago, Papworth composed a message on a computer that read “Merry Christmas” and sent it over the Vodafone UK cellular network to Vodafone director Richard Jarvis. According to Papworth, he had to use a computer to compose the message because no phones at the time had the necessary keypad elements to input that much text.
Of course, SMS (Short Message Service) doesn’t support very many characters in the grand scheme of things. The roots of SMS go back to the earliest stages of mobile technology in the mid-1980s. The GSM standards supported the transmission of up to 160 alphanumeric characters. SMS was later ported to other network technologies like CDMA and AMPS.
SMS took off in some markets in the mid-to-late 1990s, as devices with T9 input and QWERTY keyboards started appearing on the market. SMS slowly gained ground in the US through the early 2000s until the first modern smartphones appeared in 2007. US wireless customers sent some 12.5 billion SMS per month in 2006. By the following year, that number had skyrocketed to 45 billion. As of June 2017, US mobile users are sending about 781 billion SMS each month.
As smartphones become a regular part of everyone’s life, other forms of messaging have impinged upon the dominance of SMS. Messaging services like iMessage, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger have supplanted SMS in many markets. WhatsApp alone was delivering 55 billion messages every day as of last summer.
A major part of the shift to online services over SMS is the ability to use more advanced features. An online service that uses data can support group chats, larger images, and cross-platform sync to name a few. This is something network operators hope to address in the near future with the RCS standard (Rich Communication Services). This network-based messaging standard would bring many of these advanced features to messaging. RCS could handle group messages, file transfer, read receipts, IP voice calls, and so much more. The problem is getting everyone on the same page.
The GSMA has commitments to support RCS from major carriers like ATT Bell Mobility, Verizon, Orange, and others. Android has support for RCS messaging, but Apple has yet to add support. It’ll take time for all networks to get on a single standardized framework, so for now support is a bit of a patchwork.