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What is SMS?

SMS (Short Message Service), commonly referred to as "text messaging," is a service for sending short messages of up to 160 characters to mobile devices, including cellular phones, smartphones and PDAs. SMS is similar to paging. However, SMS messages do not require the mobile phone to be active and within range and will be held for a number of days until the phone is active and within range.


For the generation now commonly referred to as the Millennials, SMS messaging has been a part of life from day one and remains one of the most commonly used methods of communication, even with the rapid growth of mobile messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp to name a few.

In order to understand how the humble SMS message came about, we first need to take a trip back in time. German engineer Friedhelm Hillebrand and his French colleague Bernard Ghillebaert were hard at work developing a system that would allow written messages to be exchanged through the existing telephone network by making use of unused capacity. The system was based on GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) standards. Early on in their research, Hillebrand and Ghillebaert found that it was necessary to limit the length of messages to 128 bytes in order to fit into the existing signal formats. This was later improved to 160 characters. Hillebrand argued, on the basis of his analysis of postcards and Telex messages, that this was quite sufficient to express most messages succinctly. It was this same principle that much more recently became the basis for the 140 character limit in Twitter.

The first commercially sold SMS service was offered to consumers, as a person-to-person text messaging service in the early 90’s. In those early years, GSM mobile phone handsets did not support the ability to send SMS text messages, and Nokia was the only handset manufacturer whose total GSM phone line in 1993 supported user-sending of SMS text messages. Although Hillebrand and Ghillebaert laid the foundations for SMS messaging, it is the Finnish mobile communications engineer Matti Makkonen who is generally credited as the inventor of the SMS text message as we know it today. Makkonen was working for Nokia at the time and helped the company to develop the first ‘SMS friendly’ handsets.

Despite the truly multinational story behind the SMS, the first SMS message was sent over the Vodafone GSM network in the United Kingdom in December 1992. It was sent by Neil Papworth of Sema Group using a personal computer to Richard Jarvis of Vodafone using an Orbitel 901 handset. The text of the message was “Merry Christmas.”

In spite of its popularity today, SMS messaging got off to a surprisingly slow start. In 1995, the average number of messages sent per customer per month was just 0.4. This was, however, largely due to operators rather than customers due to restrictions in place on users and who they were able to send and receive messages from. For example, you could not send or receive messages from users outside of your network at that time.  It was not until 1999 that an agreement was reached allowing users to send SMS messages to contacts using other networks.

Once early problems had been resolved and restrictions eased, the full usefulness of SMS text messaging was unlocked and numbers quickly rose. By the end of 2000, UK users were sending an average of 35 text messages each per month. In 2010, it was reported that 6.1 trillion messages were sent globally – an equivalent of 193,000 SMS messages per second.