Ina Fried

Recent Posts by Ina Fried

OMG, the Text Message Turns 20

It was 20 years ago today that the first text message was sent. Neil Papworth used a PC to send an early Christmas greeting to the cellphone of Richard Jarvis of Vodafone.

Since then there have been trillions of texts shuttled around the globe, each delivering their messages in 160 characters or less.

But, as the text message turns 20, the key question is whether the venerable short message service (SMS) is already over the hill.

After all, it has all kinds of rivals. Those looking to save costs can use WhatsApp. Apple’s iPhone will automatically convert messages sent from another iPhone to its own iMessage format, while services like Skype and FaceTime offer the ability to add video to the mix.

And, after years of gigantic growth, overall text message volume is starting to decline, though total messages sent each year still measure in the trillions.

But, despite the fact that rivals can boast cheaper prices and additional services, the SMS has something all its challengers lack — ubiquity. Nearly everyone with a basic cellphone can send and receive a text, meaning that one can send a message without having to know what kind of phone is at the other end.

SMS has also proven remarkably hearty. Text messages can often get through even when calls won’t, making them popular to let family members know when one is safe in a disaster.

The cellphone carriers, who have made billions of dollars from the short texts, are keen to stem the tide away from SMS and onto third-party services. For years now, the carriers have been working on something known as Rich Communication Services, which would add a variety of new capabilities to carrier messaging, while aiming to recreate the interoperability of SMS.

Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik