Happy 30th birthday to the SMS text message!
Ironically for a format that’s frequently used for forgotten birthdays in lieu of a card, the venerable format actually entered its third decade on Saturday — 30 years to the day since Vodafone employee Neil Papworth messaged his boss two words: “Merry Christmas.” Like millions of text messages sent in the intervening years, it apparently went unanswered: some gratitude.
Now that this post is well over SMS’ 160-character limit, we can write a home truth without it getting all mopey (a common occurrence for those turning 30): it’s looking a touch ropey in 2022.
Yes, SMS is still widely in use, with estimates ranging from between 18 and 27 billion messages sent each day. But many of those are for automated services, two-factor authentication and voting for the latest desperate reality TV hopeful. Even then, an estimated 100 billion WhatsApp messages are sent in the same 24 hours, and that’s not factoring in those sent via Facebook Messenger, Telegram and Signal.
Compared to these challengers, SMS looks inflexible, limited and insecure: in short, a bit of a relic from a time when people worked around character limits with barely comprehensible text speak (or “txt spk” to save myself three precious characters — a whole 1.9% of an SMS character limit!)
Of course, when SMS was in its prime, nobody wanted to send long messages anyway. Lest we forget, SMS is the product of an era where you had to repeatedly hammer the number keys to produce a single letter. No wonder BlackBerry was briefly the number-one mobile maker in the world.
The fact that people still wanted to send texts even with these barriers in place was an early warning to manufacturers that perhaps the word ‘phone’ part wasn’t the most important part of the ‘mobile phone’. Indeed, nowadays, voice calls are in decline, with Millenials and Gen Z types preferring apps instead — and it’s perhaps no coincidence that elder Millenials will have been teenagers when SMS was first starting out.
So raise a glass to SMS on its 30th birthday. It may not be as fresh and new as it was in 1992, but it forever changed the way we communicate on the go. And with app competition more fierce than ever, you can’t help thinking it stands at least a fighting chance of outliving all the messaging services that are at least half its age…