November 30, 2012, 3:42 PM — In the fast moving world of technology, there are perhaps few things that have proved as resistant to change as the simple SMS text message.
While a dizzying number of options exist today to interconnect people, the text message remains a 160 character deliverer of news, gossip, laughs, alerts, and all manner of other information. It connects more people than Facebook and Twitter, has brought down governments, and in so much of the world still holds the ability to change lives.
Dec. 3 is the 20th anniversary of the sending of the first SMS text message.
Today, upwards of 7 trillion text messages are sent every year -- that's more than 200,000 per second -- but the technology had humble beginnings.
Its origins can be traced back to a Danish pizzeria in 1984. Matti Makkonen, a Finnish engineer, was in Copenhagen for a mobile telecom conference and began discussing with two colleagues the idea of a messaging system on the GSM digital cellular system. At the time GSM was a Nordic technology, becoming a European standard later.
Eight years later, SMS had become a standard and Neil Papworth, an engineer working for Sema Group in the U.K., was one member of a team developing SMS service center software for Vodafone.
The development work had been going on for most of the year and on Dec. 3, 1992, Papworth made the 30 minute journey from Sema's offices in Reading to Vodafone's headquarters in Newbury. Both are in Berkshire, just west of London.
Testing had been taking place for weeks. Just as today, Vodafone had a stringent series of checks to be carried out before Sema's SMS system could be interconnected with its network.
The approval was finally given and the systems interconnected, then Papworth, sitting in front of a personal computer, tapped out the greeting "Merry Christmas" and sent it via SMS to Vodafone Director Richard Jarvis.
The text-messaging era was born.
Jarvis received the message on an Orbitel 901 "transportable" cellphone. The device was mammoth by today's standards, weighing 2.1 kilograms -- equivalent to just over 17 iPhone 5 handsets.
"People always ask me if it was a monumental occasion," said Papworth in an interview. "For me, I was working for Sema, Vodafone paid us to write the software and we got the job done."
Text messaging's main use at first was to inform subscribers of waiting voicemails, and it was offered at no cost. In itself, that was an innovation because users would otherwise periodically call their voicemail box to see if it contained any new messages.
Perhaps it's no surprise then that in late 1995, three years after Papworth's first text message, users were only sending an average of one text every two and a half months.
It took SMS several years to take off -- and for some of that time, Papworth didn't have a cellphone.