“Merry Christmas”

And with those timeless words, a new communication tool was born.

Twenty-five years ago last Sunday, Richard Jarvis, a director at Vodafone, was attending a party in Berkshire. His mobile phone made a noise like a phone call but it wasn’t a phone call. Neil Papworth was sitting in front of a computer back at the office and had just sent the world’s first text message to a phone.

Of course there was significant research and technical work that had gone on for many years before this first message was delivered. The length of a text message alone had caused significant debate within the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) group.

The group discussed the idea of using the control link on a mobile to send small amounts of text. The initial investigations showed that the most the team could fit into this link was 128 characters. This seemed like nowhere near enough. Further pruning of the character set and tweaking delivered 160 characters. The committee thought this was still not enough – so they decided to look at some unscientific data.

Analysing postcards they found that most contained 150 characters. OK – good start. Then they analysed messages sent via Telex. Despite not having any technical limitation, Telex messages were typically less than 150 characters. The acid test was then conducted by Friedhelm Hillebrand, who was the chairman of the non-voice services committee within GSM. Over a weekend he sat at a typewriter and typed random sentences. A question. An answer. A statement. He then analysed all of these sentences and found the majority were under 160 characters. On the back of this final test, his recommendation to the committee was to limit SMS messages to 160 characters – and the limit was set. Twitter’s first message length was also based on this – Twitter messages were once limited to 140 characters which was based on the 160 characters of a text message with 20 characters taken up for the username.

From humble beginnings in 1992 with a computer used to send that first message, we have moved somewhat ahead. There is an entire txt spk dictionary which consists of several thousand words – all designed to convey a meaning while using fewer characters. You are probably familiar with gr8 instead of great and u instead of you but serious texters developed an entirely new language of initialisms and acronyms. Do you regularly use FYSBIGTBABN or GSYJDWURMNKH or IYCSSNASDSAAA? Don’t feel bad if you aren’t familiar with “Fasten Your Seat Belts It’s Going To Be A Bumpy Night” or “Good Seeing You, Just Don’t Wear Your Monkey Hat” or “If You Can’t Say Something Nice About Someone Don’t Say Anything At All.” When you analyse the usage of SMS by people across the world the numbers are mind-blowing. Of people who do actually text, 97 per cent text every single day. There are 263,000 text messages sent across the world every single second and, on average, people in the 18-24 age bracket send and receive 128 texts every day. Text messages do receive a much better response than other forms of communication – for example a text message has a 45 per cent chance of a response while e-mail has a 6 per cent chance of eliciting a response.

After 25 years, is texting here to stay? Well the problem is that there are so many choices for messaging. Assuming that people no longer actually use their phone to make a phone call, they can use their phone to send an e-mail or a text message. Then there are a variety of tools – some linked to social media applications – such as Facebook Messenger; WhatsApp Messenger; Direct Message in Twitter and Snapchat and the list goes on. You can use an app such as Voxer Walkie Talkie to send recorded voice messages to other users of the app. Some might say there are actually too many choices in your messaging options. Staying in touch with people means having ten different apps open all the time… Maybe that old-fashioned idea of ringing people and speaking to them will catch on some day?

Mathew Dickerson

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