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Thank You Neil And Matti, 20 Years Since The First Text Message And Counting
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Thank You Neil And Matti, 20 Years Since the First Text Message And Counting

On 3rd December 1992 Neil Papworth a British engineer sent the first text message - “Merry Christmas”. Matti Makkonen, a Finnish engineer working for Nokia is credited as the inventor earlier in 1984. How things have evolved now I am “Tweeting” using my Android smartphone.

I can still remember my first text message, or at least when I sent it. It was late 1995 and I was standing in a doorway in Kingston upon Thames, England sheltering from the cold, trying to work out how to send an SMS to my housemate. I had just started selling mobile phones and my housemate had just bought one. So we were playing with our new toys as men do. However, I can not remember what the message was, nothing important that’s for sure.

I had my “Beatles” moment. After messing around with the handset I finally managed to send the text and concluded it was not worth the hassle and wondered why anyone would bother. Just like the record label Decca who did not sign the Beatles because they did not think anyone would be interested, I regretted that decision. To be fair not quite on the same scale.

A couple of years later I founded a software company developing applications for use with scanners and related imaging devices. By the turn of the century we had diversified and were supplying Windows Software which would send SMS text messages from your PC. Sadly we were several years too late, others had got their first. Even though we sold our product in over 80 countries and 15 languages a few years later we called it a day. If only I had spotted the opportunity that cold day in Kingston.

According to the International Telecommunications Union more than 6 trillion texts are sent annually. But we now have BBM, different chat services, Twitter and others which can be used to do the same thing and they are having an effect. In those areas particularly cities where smartphone usage is high, texting is showing signs of peaking or even reducing.

Mobile network companies have loved our reliance on text. The technical requirements of sending a text for a network are not challenging and the cost per text is next to nothing so mobile network operators have made a killing. Its simplicity is no doubt part of its success. It is difficult for it to fail. Messages might not be delivered, but rarely due to technical issues. Usually down to contractual issues between networks.

They were the first type of “instant messaging” for many which demonstrated a new peril. It is very difficult when you write a letter or fax to send it to the wrong person, send it before you have finished or send it without being sure it was the right thing to do. Usually you had a chance to think about it. But, with a text no chance. Click send and it was gone, and not necessarily where you thought. Sending a text has been a very simple piece of technology which meant that everyone could do it. However, I must confess to this day I still can not use predictive text, for some this is an art form.

Not everything is good. Phones became new weapons for bullies, a great method of maintaining secret relationships, a delivery method of bad news for those who could not wait or face you personally. You only had 160 characters per message so you could not waffle and had to be direct, this could be good but also could lead to misinterpretation. It sparked debates over privacy. “Does your partner have the right to look at your text messages?”

Business has been able to take advantage of the fact that because most of us use a mobile we can therefore send or receive a text. Traffic alerts help people avoid congestion and many banks use them to secure online banking payment transfers. There is however, one small problem with the latter. When messages are sent in the same country as the sender and recipient, it should arrive within seconds. My European banks text security process prevented me from doing important banking whilst visiting clients in Australia. It was taking 2 or 3 hours for the security confirmation text to arrive. By then the online process was “timed out” and I had to start the process again. It was not the distance but the number of networks that the text passed through. If a network is busy it tends to prioritise its’ own users, everyone else waits.

So, 20 today and hopefully another 20 to go. I would like to thank Matti and Neil. Maybe without them I and many others would never have experienced the excitement of the “beep beep” from their phone when someone is in touch.


Street Talk

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