Where would we be without text messaging? The feature has grown from being favored by the tech-savvy to a universal staple. It’s allowed us to be more efficient, independent and direct. When you’re running late, you text someone to let them know. When you’re in class or a meeting and there’s an emergency, you know immediately. When you need a quick “yes” or “no,” you ask via text.
How did such a seemingly simple method of communication lead us to the trillions of texts sent today?
Texting, or SMS (short message service) is a method of communication that sends text between cellphones — or from a PC or handheld to a cell phone.
The “short” part comes from the maximum size of the text messages: 160 characters (letters, numbers or symbols in the Latin alphabet).
The SMS concept was developed in the Franco-German GSM cooperation in 1984 by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert.
The first text message was sent in 1992 from Neil Papworth, a former developer at Sema Group Telecoms. Mobile phones didn’t have keyboards at the time, so Papworth had to type the message on a PC. Papworth’s text — “Merry Christmas” — was successfully sent to Richard Jarvis at Vodafone.
Most early GSM mobile phone handsets did not support the ability to send text messages. The first SMS gateways for cellphones were network notifications, usually to inform of voice mail messages.
Nokia was the first handset manufacturer whose total GSM phone line in 1993 supported user-sending of SMS text messages. In 1997, it became the first manufacturer to produce a mobile phone with a full keyboard: the Nokia 9000i Communicator.
Like any new technology, initial growth for SMS was slow. The average American user sent 0.4 texts per month in 1995. Gradually, phones and networks adapted to better accommodate SMS. In 1999, texts could finally be exchanged between different networks, which increased its usefulness. By 2000, the average number of text messages sent in the U.S. increased to 35 a month per person.
Types of Texting
The first, most common method of commercial texting is referred to as “multi-tap.” Each number on the phone is connected to three or four letters. For example, the “3” key displays “D,” “E” and “F.” Multi-tap is easy to understand, but not very efficient.
In the 1990s, Tegic co-founder Cliff Kushler invented T9, short for “Text on 9 keys.” Instead of multi-tapping, predictive text technology displays words from a single keypress. As T9 becomes familiar with the words and phrases commonly used by the texter, they become correspondent in order of frequency. In 2011, Kushler invented Swype, a texting feature for touchscreens that enables users to drag their fingers to connect the dots between letters in a word.
Full keyboards on mobile phones was first introduced in 1997 with the Nokia 9000i Communicator. It became a popular feature in the late ’90s to early ’00s. Most models adopted the QWERTY keyboard, a layout we’ve grown accustomed to in computers.
The IBM Simon had the first touchscreen in 1992 — it’s also referred as the first “smartphone,” though the term was not yet coined. The phone was 15 years ahead of its time. Smartphones advanced, and in 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone, notable for its multi-touch interface and virtual keyboard.
Virtual keyboards had automatic spell check and correction, predictive text technology, and the ability to learn new words. The keys were larger and keyboard adapts to the phone’s width based on landscape or vertical orientation. Today, virtual keyboards have become a standard feature for smartphones.
That year, 2007, also happened to mark the first year that Americans sent and received more text messages per month than phone calls. Social media sites like Twitter adopted the short character format, which has likely helped the text message phenomenon — we’ve learned to be more concise and character-conscious.
Social media, chat, email, Skype and other forms of online communication have broadened options outside of just text messaging. But most of these options require data. Text messaging became a universal feature for phones, making it more affordable in an unlimited package.
Today, SMS is the most widely-used data application in the world, with 81% of mobile phone subscribers using it. And SMS has become more than just a way to text with friends — it also lets us receive updates and alerts, keep track of our finances, send email, and much more.
How often do you text? Do you just use it to communicate with friends? Tell us in the comments.