The first SMS was sent by Neil Papworth, an engineer at Vodafone, to the mobile phone of one of the company’s directors, attending the company’s Christmas Party.
The message, written on a computer, read, ‘Merry Christmas.’
Few people, let alone the first sender, realised this would herald the beginning of a communications phenomenon that has stretched a generation. “I don’t know if they really thought it was going to be a big thing,” said Papworth.
It took a long time for text messages to become popular. In 1992, network coverage was a fraction of what it is today, SMS-capable phones only really took off the following year, and back then the buttons on handsets were set up configured for dialling rather than typing.
Roll on a few years and they had become mainstream. By 2007, users in the UK were sending 66 billion SMS messages a year. This figure rose to 151 billion by 2012. Today, we send 96 billion every day.
This explosion is largely driven by the rise of Smartphones, which make touchscreen messaging virtually effortless. Cultural change has also played its part. In the early-2000s, texting was rare and was even considered to be a lazy and impolite form of communication. In today’s fast-paced world, few want to take a lengthy phone call, preferring a text they can quickly respond to with a short response.
But as the march of technology continues, question marks are raised over the long-term future of the SMS. Increasing Smartphone capabilities and modern network coverage combine to offer near-constant mobile internet access, which in turn has encouraged the development of more sophisticated messaging services and social networks. As an example, as of mid-year 2017, some 55 billion were being sent by WhatsApp per day.
SMS is likely to remain a big player in the messaging space in the medium-term, as it continues to be the best option for those who live in UK regions that don’t have dependable access to mobile data. But as network coverage continues to improve, this is likely to signal the beginning of the end for faithful old SMS.