Monday, December 3 marks the 20th anniversary of the first sending of an SMS in 1992, when the young Sema Group test engineer Neil Papworth texted “Merry Christmas” to Vodafone UK employee Richard Jarvis, over Vodafone’s GSM network.
Within 12 months several European operators had launched SMS. TeliaSonera Sweden was the first to offer a commercial, network-based SMS voice-mail notification service in 1993, and Radiolinja Finland (Elisa) was the first to provide commercial person-to-person SMS.
However, it took a few more years for SMS to reach critical mass, owing to a combination of factors, including insufficient support for SMS natively in handsets, the inability of mobile operators to set up billing systems for SMS that were also fraud-proof, and the lack of SMS interoperability between mobile operator networks.
But, by the early-to-mid 2000s, the mobile communications industry had collectively worked to address these problems and SMS was on a roll; in 2002 mobile subscribers around the globe sent more than 250 billion SMS messages, according to Informa Telecoms & Media.
SMS was initially used mainly for notifications, such as voicemail notifications, before it was adopted on a massive scale in the youth market for person-to-person messaging. Younger mobile users quickly found that mobile operators were deliberately pricing SMS more cheaply than voice calls, in order to drive take-up and use. But they also liked being able to send messages that did not need an immediate response and, as interoperability between mobile operator networks grew, they liked knowing that they could reliably send texts to friends on different networks.
SMS pricing has since played a key role in mobile users’ adoption and use of the service. Inexpensive plans that included large bundles of SMS or unlimited SMS meant that all consumers – and not just the youth market – became pretty much unconcerned about how much their messaging cost. The mobile operators that introduced such plans soon reaped the rewards in terms of increased SMS revenues and traffic.