Monday, December 10, 2012

20 years of SMS

If you own a mobile phone (and the chances are that you do), there is one feature that you cannot usually live without: SMS (Short Messaging Service) also known as texting. We now take SMS for granted, but it was invented just 20 years ago, when the cellular industry itself was in its infancy (Remember those ‘brick’ phones circa 1990?).

While the technology really didn’t boom until around 2000, the service has been around since 1992. The first text message ever sent took place on December 3, 1992, and was sent by British engineer Neil Papworth to Richard Jarvis of Vodafone. The message simply read, “Merry Christmas.” And Jarvis had no way of replying, because his phone simply did not offer that facility back then.

Engineers began work on SMS much earlier. Although Papworth sent the first SMS, it is Matti Makkonen who is widely recognised as “the father of SMS”. He put forward the idea of a mobile phone messaging service way back in 1984, when Motorola was just coming out with a rudimentary cellular service and equipment line up.

Makkonen takes little credit for the phenomenon and the technology, mentioning that others made it a reality.

In an interview with the BBC (conducted, of course, by SMS), Makkonen says that he never envisioned text messaging to grow to today’s proportions. (Nokia, in 1993, became the first company to make GSM handsets capable of text messaging, but the use of the service really didn’t take off at all at first).

Makkomen never considered SMS as a “separate issue,” saying it “was just a feature in the revolutionary mobile communications system very useful for quick business needs.” He also never patented the idea, thus not making money from licenses.

Today, SMS is much more popular than taking calls. In fact, a recent survey revealed that actual telephony is the sixth most important function for most mobile users, way behind texting, social networking, web browsing, alarm/calendar etc. Although plain texting itself was supposed to be superseded by MMS (Multi Media Messaging – which adds pictures, audio/video), the vast majority of mobile subscribers still use good old SMS.

In 1993, most people didn’t even know what SMS was. Even by 1996, most people sent only five or six messages per year. Now, almost everyone is doing it, all the time. Six billion mobile users around the world, out of a seven billion population, sent over 8 trillion messages last year - more than 250,000 texts per second.

It is much less costly than calling someone up, convenient when you are in a hurry and secure as well. Here in Sri Lanka, where the number of cellular connections has almost exceeded the population, texting has become enormously popular, especially with the introduction of vernacular language (Sinhala and Tamil) texting. Of course, most people simply type Sinhala or Tamil messages phonetically in English letters, as in “Oya keeyatada enne” (at what time will you be coming).

Texting is not necessarily a two-way street. SMS messages have become one of the main ways in which news is disseminated by news agencies, newspapers and TV stations.

One has to subscribe to these “news alert” services for a nominal monthly fee for instant access to the latest developments - no TV is required. If you want sports scores, lottery results, newspaper headlines and even horoscope readings, SMS is the way to get them all.

Text messaging is also ideal when Governments and authorities want to warn people quickly if a natural calamity is at hand. We saw this in action during the recent tsunami warning. It is also a godsend to frequent travellers, who can minimise voice roaming charges by being strictly confined to texting. Moreover, it costs just a little more than a local SMS to send an SMS to any mobile phone anywhere in the world – even in the world of free Skype calls and cheap IDD calls, that is still an advantage.

Like everything else, texting has its downsides. It is very easy to get addicted to texting and neglect other things. Some mobile users even do it while driving, which is really dangerous.

We often read news items about young people who have been knocked down by passing vehicles (and even trains) because they were either texting or talking on a mobile phone without paying any attention to the road or rail track. Parents also have to keep a tab on the texting habits of their children, without necessarily intruding on their privacy.

Fears have also been expressed that excessive texting may lead to a generation who may not know a “proper” language.

As one SMS is limited to 160 characters, most users try to squeeze in as much of the message as possible by shortening or abbreviating words. (The same is true for the social networking/microblogging site Twitter).

Thus, a message may look like this (and be incomprehensible to some persons who are not well versed in SMS language): Wht u say made me LOL – IMHO v shd b frnds 4eva n I wl defa cme 4 dnr 2nite. (what you say made me Laugh Out Loud - In My Humble Opinion we should be friends for ever and I will definitely come for dinner tonight). Similar patterns can be found for other languages as well.

Texters frequently use many ‘smileys’ and other signs to indicate their status – Happy, sad, confused, laughing, crying, screaming etc. Some educators are unhappy that children’s grammatical and writing skills could be blunted by the frequent use of ‘txt’ language and in fact, many students have been caught writing SMS language in normal essays.

While SMS/MMS are evolving, many competitors are striving to take their crown. With Facebook becoming a common feature on smartphones and even normal phones, updating your status need not be confined to 160 characters. You can chat on Facebook too, much faster than on a cellular SMS connection. Free email services such as Gmail, which can be accessed on most 3G mobiles, also offer free chatting services.

Twitter is another take on the SMS lingo, the difference being that your “followers” anywhere in the world can be informed of your latest moves at no cost (except internet/data charges). It is a form of SMS broadcasting if you consider it from that angle.

But any reports on the death of SMS are highly exaggerated. It is still the cheapest form of mobile communication in many regions of the world and there are millions of mobile phones out there which do not have Wi-Fi, 3G, Facebook et al.

These simple machines can only do voice calls and SMS, which is enough for most people. Twenty years from now, texting will still be around, may be in a more developed form.

Tht wil b gr8 4 SMS. C U L8R.

By Pramoth de silva - Sunday Obsever