Not many 20-year-olds can seriously claim to have changed the world, but that could be said about SMS, or text messaging as it’s also known. Twenty years on from the first text message – sent on December 3, 1992 – we look at how the technology rose from humble beginnings to become the world’s most popular data application.

SMS technology was developed as part of the standardization of GSM, in which Ericsson played a significant role. The first message carried the seasonal greeting "Merry Christmas" – sent from a PC to a mobile device via Vodafone’s UK GSM network on that December day in 1992.

However, as mobile telephony itself was still new, very few saw the need for messaging on the go. Mobile voice was seen as the real revolutionary offering.

But as subscriber numbers grew, SMS became established as a popular alternative to voice, particularly among teenagers and young adults.

The emergence of real-time charging solutions at the turn of the millennium (Ericsson’s first solutions for SMS went operational in 1999) was a real catalyst in transforming SMS into a mass-market offering. The solutions allowed operators to offer affordable prepaid charging packages. The ability to text between different operators also boosted traffic. In short, SMS boomed in popularity.

In 1995, the average US user sent 0.4 text messages per month. Ten years later, in 2005, with prepaid services well established, more than 1 trillion text messages were sent globally in the calendar year.

The 160 character-per-message limit also resulted in the invention of a new form of language, called textese or txt-spk (among other variations), comprising shorthand, acronyms and letter/digit combinations that often defy the rules of grammar.

Particular formulations of characters also allowed emotions to be communicated through what became known as smiley faces, winking faces, sad faces and a range of other expressions.

A message like: "CU 2nite. OMG hv I gr8 nws for u!!! LOL! BFF ☺" makes sense to anyone with basic textese knowledge now, but before SMS this sentence would simply have looked like a random jumble of letters and symbols.

So profound has the impact of textese been that the Oxford English Dictionary has accepted LOL (laughing out loud), OMG (oh my God), IMHO (in my humble opinion), and BFF (best friends forever) into its listings.

The advent of predictive text has helped with the speed of message writing, but often with unintended consequences as messages containing wrong words have been mistakenly sent. Such messages are often quoted in humorous posts on social-media sites.

The methodology of typing text messages has also changed through time: from the "multi-click one-thumb" method of input (where each digit on the phone number pad doubled for three or four letters or symbols) to the “two-thumb” method favored by most users of smartphones that replicate the traditional QWERTY keyboard.

SMS communication has also evolved beyond a person-to-person communication tool to an information and control resource that has changed society and behavior.

Tailored group text messages can be sent for work, advertising, business, location-based promotions or emergency-information purposes – such as the World Health Organization-backed typhoon and disaster response system in the Philippines.

SMS has improved how we organize and run our lives: whether its booking bus tickets in Tanzania or Brazil; paying to park our cars in Croatia, Estonia and Belgium; verifying annual tax returns in Sweden; or transferring money or getting information about employment opportunities in neighboring African villages – SMS is changing how we do things. There is even a Guinness World Record for the fastest time to type a text message.

SMS has transformed the broadcasting industry through viewers’ ability to interact with, and influence, what they see on screen by casting votes in popular shows such as Idol, Big Brother, X Factor and the Eurovision Song Contest.

It has also made donating to charities – through telethons or individual appeals – easier, and has boosted the democratic process by helping campaign teams promote messages and facilitate fundraising – as seen in US President Barack Obama’s 2012 election campaign.

Tailored SMS alerts keep individuals informed about news events, their work, personal life, hobbies and interests – from reminders about hospital appointments or booking seats at the movies, to communicating the arrival of a package at the post office or reminding airline passengers to check in online.

SMS alerts are even being generated from outer space through a NASA service to inform device owners of when the International Space Station may be visible to them overhead.

In business, important information or updates can be sent to colleagues while they are in meetings, without disrupting proceedings.

A 2012 Ericsson ConsumerLab report shows that teenagers prefer texting to voice calls and e-mail – with SMS also playing a role in the changing dynamic of teenage dating.

About 25,000 text messages are currently sent every second globally, amounting to a predicted 2012 total of about 10 trillion messages.

But perhaps the real beauty is that every day, somewhere in the world, someone is experiencing SMS for the first time. With all that has been achieved by the time of its 20th birthday, we can only wonder what will have been accomplished through the technology when it is 30, 40 and 50 years old. There should certainly be a lot to look forward to.

Specific case stories

Improving safety for fishermen

An Ericsson-backed weather-alert service was launched in May 2012 in Ugandan fishing villages bordering Lake Victoria.

The information enables fishermen and traders to make informed decisions on when and where to fish in Lake Victoria, thus helping to save lives and preserve livelihoods.

Ericsson pdf: Mobile Weather Alert

Related article: Mobile weather service improves safety of fishermen in Uganda

Refugees United

Reuniting refugees: SMS services are helping to reunite families separated by natural or human disaster.

Read the article: Refugee Reconnection

Frontline SMS

The world’s poorest countries are the easiest targets when it comes to human trafficking and slavery, either by forced labor, forced marriage or sexual exploitation.

Survivors Connect teamed up with other non-governmental organizations to try to prevent a repeat of the trafficking that followed the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami.

Read the article: FrontlineSMS: How text messaging changes lives

RapidSMS

A small chip inserted inside an ordinary mobile phone is helping health workers, district officials and ministry of health staff in Rwanda ensure that pregnant women receive the best health care.

RapidSMS website

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