SMS SOS! A rather unhappy birthday
The first texts were sent 20 years ago, and, to the industry's surprise, became a sensation. But now they're past their peak
Paul Bignell is an Assistant News Editor at The Independent. He has previously been the acting News Editor of the i Paper, a home news reporter for The Independent for one year and a reporter for the Independent on Sunday for six years.
Sunday 02 December 2012
OMG! The SMS message is on its way to the great junk folder in the sky. The humble text - which over the past two decades has done everything from sealing multinational deals to shattering lovelorn hearts − is, for the first time in its history, on the decline.
From a tiny start with the world's first message − the words "Merry Christmas" sent from a personal computer to a mobile phone − in December 1992, the use of texts exploded after 1998 when the UK's four major mobile-phone companies introduced "pay-as-you-go". A year later, supermarkets were selling mobiles and any teenager without one slid down the social caste system.
Now four billion people around the globe use SMS − Short Message Service – to communicate with each other. But, for the first time since their inception, text messaging volumes have declined. New figures from the media regulator Ofcom saw two quarterly declines − by over a billion − in the volume of SMS messages sent in the UK. The volume of texts sent in Britain reached a peak of 39.7bn at the end of last year, but have now dropped to 38.5bn – the first recorded decline. The pattern is similar in the US where volumes of texts have also dropped, according to a new report.
James Thickett, Ofcom's director of research, said: "For the first time in the history of mobile phones, SMS volumes are showing signs of decline." He added that it was the availability of a wider range of services, such as instant messaging and Twitter, that has led to the fall.
"The availability of a wider range of communications tools, like instant messaging and social networking sites, means people might be sending fewer SMS messages, but they are communicating electronically more than ever before," he said.
Technological change is now so rapid and so unpredictable that no one can say how we will be communicating in 20 years' time. But here on these pages, while we still have SMS, are some of the defining texts of the past two decades.
Merry Christmas; Neil Papworth, 1992
A simple sentiment, but significant: this was the first text message ever sent. Mobile messaging engineer Neil Papworth sent it from his personal computer to Vodafone's Richard Jarvis in December 1992 – and the humble text was born.
See you later; Patrick Lumumba to Amanda
The final part of a message from Patrick Lumumba, owner of Le Chic bar, to Amanda Knox, telling her she didn't need to work on the night Briton Meredith Kercher was murdered in Italy in 2008.
We will make it happen; Tiger Woods to girlfriend, 2009
One of many texts sent by the disgraced golfer Tiger Woods, to one of the many women with whom he had an affair. His infidelities cost him millions in sponsorship royalties after they were made public.
I'm gonna be here always xx. But are you OK? xxx; Amy Winehouse to friend Kristian Marr, 2011
Kristian Marr, bassist with rock band Towers of London, says he was the last person to be texted by the late singer – but he was asleep when Amy's message was received.
As Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik began his rampage on Utoeya island, killing 69, this brave teen texted her parents. Calling could have given away her whereabouts.
The Armed Forces asks Egypt's honest and loyal men to confront the traitors and criminals and protect our people and honour and our precious Egypt; The Egyptian government, via Vodafone, 2011
The telecommunications firm came under fire after it was ordered by the Egyptian government to send out this text message during the uprising of February 2011.
That's it former Finnish Prime Minister; Matti Vanhanen, 2011
Dumping your partner by text has never been honourable. Last year the former Finnish PM saw fit to tell long-term girlfriend Susan Kuronen their relationship was over, from the safe distance of his Nokia.
Haiti; The Red Cross to members of the public, 2010
A bit of a "ritual" text message from Olympic gold medal winner Jessica Ennis's mother before her first event at the 2012 Olympics.
The one-word text helped raise millions for victims of the 7.0 magnitude quake that killed more than 300,000 on the impoverished island. The public simply texted "Haiti" to donate £10.
Doos; Cricketer Kevin Pietersen, 2012
The Afrikaans word means "box", but has a slang connotation unfit for print. The text, and other insults sent by the England cricketer to team-mate Andrew Strauss, cost Pietersen his place in the squad.
Safe - got bone dry cheese if u need; Lee Streeter to PC Daniel Hughes, 2012
If you're going to text your entire address book offering drugs, make sure it doesn't contain any police officers. "Bone dry cheese" is slang for cannabis. Judge John Maxwell jailed Streeter for 16 months.
Burp; Brennan Hayden, 1993
The first commercial text message was sent from Los Angeles by Brennan Hayden, at the time an engineer for the Irish wireless company Aldiscon, in June 1993.
Yes; Brad Pitt to 'Moneyball' director Andrew Dominik, 2012
Having Brad Pitt's phone number in your contacts is one thing, being able to text him to ask if he'll be in your latest film is another – especially when the answer is in the affirmative.
Will you marry me? Grant Strange, 1999
Salesman Grant Strange took the plunge and proposed to his long-term girlfriend via text message in one of the first reported marriage proposals by SMS. Luckily for him, she texted back with a: "Yes, Yes, Yes, XXX."
Meeting friends? Go to Costa Coffee buy one drink and get another free; Zag Me, 2000
"Granddaddy of marketing" ZagMe began targeting/irritating potential customers via SMS, allowing retailers to send location-sensitive, promotional texts to passing shoppers to encourage impulse buying.
Are you watching TV? World trade Center blowing up; Kat Hy Bauman, 2001
Just one of the many thousands of text messages from New Yorkers expressing their disbelief on the day of the 9/11 attacks.
Gwanghwamun station. 6:00; 16-year-old South Korean Lee
The political power of text: one teenager organises a protest with 400 students over the severe pressures of the nation's high-stress college entrance exam.
Who are you? Sent to Tony Blair, 2007
Tony Blair once revealed that after a decade in office he needed to be taught how to use a mobile phone. When the ex-PM finally managed to fire off a text message, he was somewhat bemused to receive one back that said: "Who are you?"
The razor toothed piranhas of the genera serrasalmus and pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality, they seldom attack a human; Elliot Nicholls, 2007
The meaning isn't important, but the way it was written is. It's the fastest text ever sent – blindfolded. Elliot Nicholls of Dunedin, NZ, wrote the 160 characters in 45 seconds.
Barack has chosen Senator Joe Biden to be our nominee; Barack Obama, 2008
Seen as a cutting-edge move in 2008, Obama's campaign decided to announce its vice-presidential nomination by text. Nearly three million people signed up to receive the message, handing the campaign three million new phone numbers.
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