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Text messaging at 20: how SMS changed the world

ON December 3 1992, engineer Neil Papworth sent the first SMS message to Richard Jarvis of Vodafone. It simply read "Merry Christmas," and Jarvis had no way of replying.

The idea of sending short messages via mobile phone only became a focus for telecoms companies in the UK years later, though the first commercial SMS service was launched in Sweden in 1993 by Telia.

Most companies in 1994 were investing heavily in pagers, but consumers' enthusiasm for texts, which did not require the intermediary of an operator, meant a change of tack from from the mid-1990s onwards.

At that time texts were completely free but could be sent only to people on the same network. The medium gained instant popularity among students, who soon began shortening words into "text speak."

Mobile phones already had numberpads with letters on them as part of digital GSM product specifications so that people could enter names in their phonebooks.

In the early days of texting, users had to stick to a 160 character limit (there was no way of running texts together as there is today) and T9 and other predictive text systems did not exist before 1995, meaning texting speeds were much slower.

Full cross-network compatability for SMS (between Vodafone, Cellnet, One-2-One and Orange) was not finalised until 1999, when charging started across networks.

Technology correspondent Robert Uhlig got slightly carried away, informing readers of a hugely complicated system unrecognisable to most using texts at the time.

He reported: "SMS-speak uses a combination of symbols, abbreviations and phonetics for speed and brevity, and capitals for emphasis. The number 8, for example, substitutes for the "ate" sound, used in words such as gr8, h8 or st8.”

It's now routine for parents to receive information about their children at school via text message.

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Text messages have been harnessed for charitable giving and even divorce. In 2008, British surgeon David Nott received text message instructions on how to amputate a boy's arm in the Democratic Republic of Congo, saving his life. But texts can just as easily be used thoughtlessly or spitefully. Text cyberbullying has become a new problem for teenagers and their parents and there have been reports of employees being made redundant via SMS.

Nine in ten 16-24 year olds now say they communicate with friends and family on a daily basis via text messages, compared to 15 per cent of over-65s, according to Ofcom.

But today text messages look under threat from apps such as WhatsApp and Vibr that provide the same service but over the internet, and email and video calling over 3G and 4G networks.

James Thickett, Ofcom’s Director of Research, said: “When texting was first conceived many saw it as nothing more than a niche service.

"But texts have now surpassed traditional phone calls and meeting face to face as the most frequent way of keeping in touch for UK adults, revolutionising the way we socialise, work and network.

“For the first time in the history of mobile phones, SMS volumes are showing signs of decline. However the availability of a wider range of communications tools like instant messaging and social networking sites, mean that people might be sending fewer SMS messages, but they are ‘texting’ more than ever before.”

By Jennifer O’Mahoney Telegraph.co.uk

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