History of Short Message Service (SMS)

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As SMS (Short Message Service) celebrates 25 years, it’s a good time to look back at its history and see how it’s developed since 1985. This article reviews the history of Short Message Service, aka text messaging.

Origins of SMS

SMS made its appearance in 1985, beginning as a German/French team including Bernard Ghillebaert, Friedhelm Hillebrand, and Oculy Silaban. Originally, the SMS service was defined in the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standards. The intent was to provide a means for transfer of brief, one-way information, like the news flashes one sees on the bottom of a TV screen. Candidates for inclusion were stock market quotes, sports score updates, weather reports, and up-to-the-minute traffic information. Short messages sent from providers’ websites were also planned. It was aimed at business people. The first SMS message actually sent, and beginning the history of short message service (SMS), was a Christmas greeting on December 3, 1992, traveling on Vodafone’s GSM network in the UK.

SMS was not expected to be the success it turned out to be, and that’s one reason why it was originally free. Its popularity and its youthful audience surprised service providers, who did not mount an extensive advertising campaign and didn’t, in fact, spread the word much at all until after it began to make waves. This was partly because it had a steep learning curve. The industry didn’t anticipate that people would be up to the challenge. But young people not only were up to the challenge; they actually found the challenge of the complexity worked to their advantage in that the medium could be used free from parental oversight and intrusion because adults were finding the medium too challenging to take it on. That there was initially no cost was an added bonus.

SMS Developments

The limitation to messages of 160 characters in English (fewer in alphabets that have characters that use up more memory. As people worked to communicate as fully as possible in this limited medium, new abbreviations and types of abbreviations arose. Because these spellings were new inventions, they spread slowly among users and added to the protection people felt using the medium: outsiders, which included anyone who wasn’t using the medium, now were challenged both by the complexity of the technology and the opacity of the language that was used.

In early SMS history, when the first prepaid airtime became available, SMS charges didn’t exist, and people could avoid be shocked by their usage costs if they texted instead of making expensive voice calls, SMS text message marketing popularity increased markedly. By 2000, monthly texts per user averaged 35. By 2010, the monthly average was 357. But as SMS usage took off, services realized that they should be charging for SMS. Nevertheless, the impetus was there, and the popularity of SMS, instead of being curtailed by the new charges, continued to grow apace.

Short message service history developed quickly with the use of short codes, another SMS innovation appeared in the United States in 2003. These 5-6 digit codes (short codes) are not only easier to remember than regular telephone numbers, but they made an ideal fit with value-added services, including subscribing to SMS campaigns from the customer’s favorite vendors, voting on television shows, accessing premium mobile services, and ordering ringtones, the latter two being the next development that emerged in the wake of the enormous popularity of SMS text messaging. However, by 2009, premium services were in less demand, and standard services were in greater demand. Nevertheless, the use of the SMS service is expected to continue to grow and generate $233 billion in income in calendar year 2014.

Recent SMS history developments include businesses learning to use SMS text messaging for SMS niche marketing and contact with select audiences. There are SMS alert systems for educational institutions, virtual concierge services for travelers, parent-contact programs for K-12 schools, patient contact programs for healthcare providers, community contact programs for churches, and advertising programs for restaurants, hotels, and more.

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