Happy 20th Birthday, SMS!

Happy 20th Birthday, SMS!

Try and tally up all the text messages you have ever sent in your life. Every single one. From the very first time you recharged your Nokia 3315 with credit, to the terrible way you broke up with your high-school sweetheart, right through to the one you sent this afternoon telling that gambling site to stop spamming you. Those three messages count towards the total of eight trillion text messages sent every year, and today is the anniversary of the very first. So what did it say?

20 years ago in a cold office, Neil Papworth was working late. His friend, Richard Jarvis, was enjoying an office Christmas Party at the time, when all of a sudden his brick-like phone lit up. It was a message from Richard, who had typed it using his PC keyboard (phones didn’t have keyboards back then).

“Merry Christmas”, the screen read. Surely it brought a smile to the faces of the two twenty-something Vodafone engineers, but they had no idea what their fun would lead to.

Soon after their brief season’s greeting, America’s first carrier, Omnipoint Communications, introduced the world’s first text messaging — or short messaging — service that allowed users to send communications 140 characters in length back and forth to each other. The rates were absurdly expensive and not many phones could actually support the standard. That was 1992.

Flash forward to 2012, and text messages are now used to not only communicate, but also for spam, media, emoticons and nonsense abbreviations like LOL and OMFG. The only casualty of this telecommuni-revolution seems to be punctuation. In Australia last year, billions of text messages were sent. On Telstra alone, Australians sent 12.05 billion text messages in the last year alone, and that’s just one network.

As the technology of text passes its 20th birthday, it’s becoming long in the tooth, and continues to lose ground to data-based communication methods like Facebook, Twitter, iMessage and WhatsApp (which is currently rumoured to be in the sights of Facebook).

So happy birthday and good tidings to you, SMS. Hope you’re still around to celebrate your 30th birthday.

Gizmodo editor Luke Hopewell will be on The Project (for about 10 seconds) tonight to talk about the history of the SMS. Tune in to Channel 10 at 6pm AEDT.