SMS technology turns twenty today. The messaging service is wildly popular among mobile phone subscribers worldwide, but it wasn’t always the go-to service for communication. The idea for SMS was conceived in 1984, but the service didn’t go live until 1992. It remained obscure until 1999, when it finally took off.
The idea for SMS was originally conceived by Finnish engineer Matti Makkonen, who was meeting with two colleagues for pizza after a mobile telecom conference in 1984. The trio came up with the idea for a messaging system that would work over a GSM cellular network. It took eight years for the technology to go from a dinner table idea to a standard accepted by wireless carriers.
On December 3, 1992, the first text message, containing the timely greeting “Merry Christmas,” was sent from Neil Papworth of the British company Sema Group to Vodafone’s Richard Jarvis. Papworth sent the message from his computer to Jarvis’ Orbitel 901 handset.
In 1993, SMS service was deployed on a handful of wireless carriers in the US and Europe, but adoption of the technology was slow. Nokia was the only manufacturer to support user-generated SMS messaging on all its GSM phones, and the technology only worked within each carrier’s network. Customers on a carrier like early adopter Fleet Call (now Nextel) in the US could only send messages to other Fleet Call customers. This changed in 1999 when carriers decided to let subscribers send messages to customers on rival carriers.
In the twenty-years since its debut, SMS has exploded. Today, customers send more than 7 trillion text messages every year at a rate of 200,000 per second. It is estimated that 79 percent of all mobile subscribers worldwide use SMS on their phones, and in some countries like the UK that number is almost 100 percent.