back to article Twenty years of text messages: We've reached Peak SMS

The first SMS text message was sent twenty years ago, when Neil Papworth sent a Merry Christmas to a mobile phone, an innovation which went almost unnoticed for the next half-decade. The Short Message Service took a while to take hold, longer still before network operators realised what a cash cow SMS could be, and longer …


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  1. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge

    Coincidence or what?

    Last night I received a text informing me that I've won €158000000. Yippee! All I have to do is email some dude in Hong Kong to claim my prize. But I'd like to share this good fortune so if any of have a botnet notion please add this address to your list.

    P.S. Thanks to last week's El Reg commentard who suggested forwarding spam to 7726 with the originating number attached. Done.

    1. Danny 14 Silver badge

      Re: Coincidence or what?

      and for three its 37726

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    mrry xms lol

  3. Dan 55 Silver badge


    If I remember right EMS was everyone else's answer to Nokia's Smart Messaging. Both did more-or-less the same thing, but Nokia got there first and everyone else didn't like that so they made their own standard.

  4. Ed 11


    I can remember very clearly sending my first ever SMS. It was sent in December 1998 from Cheltenham on a BT Cellnet PAYG phone to my dad's Saudi Arabian mobile. I had only been messing about with the phone's menu and exploring what I could do. I had no real idea what I was sending and no expectation of is actually working. I was amazed when, ten minutes later, I received a reply from my dad who was baffled by the fact he'd had a message pop up on his phone from me.

    Fast forward a couple of years and I remember switching my mobile phone to a MVNO called Genie, later BT Genie. They were the first network to offer 'unlimited' SMS messages and I was hooked, getting through up to 2000 messages a month in my teens.

    I hardly ever send an SMS these days as most of my text messages are delivered over either WhatsApp or iMessage. But SMS's remain often the only affordable way to use my phone when roaming, and it is a piece of technology that had a huge bearing on my teen life.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Memories

      I was just gonna say the first text message I sent/received was in December 1998 when I was in Saudi Arabia, and I got some random message pretending to be from a non-existent son!

  5. James 100


    The clever thing with iMessage in particular is that at first glance, it IS still an SMS you're sending - it just takes a slightly different route which avoids operator charges. With my brother on a different network now, this is quite handy: it no longer matters what network, or even country, somebody is on - as long as it's an iThing, you can still "text" each other for free, or at least the cost of a few kb of data.

    Now, if only it worked cross-platform...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Pseudo-SMS

      So it's nothing like an SMS then, in that it's device dependant.

      SMS worked on pretty much every network and on every device.

      1. Aaron Em

        Re: Pseudo-SMS

        It falls back to SMS if the recipient doesn't have an iMessage-capable device; I've seen this behavior frim both ends, so can be reasonably sure that is indeed what it does. Surely there are enough reasons to complain about Apple that there's no need to invent new ones!

        1. Joe 35

          Re: Pseudo-SMS

          Fraid not, this happened to a friend of mine recently, got rid of his iPhone but messages sent by colleagues still went to a non existent iMessage account.

          I dont know how you tell Apple you are no longer using your iPhone and get them to stop? Perhaps after a few days when they stop being received they do it automagically?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Pseudo-SMS

      Have they fixed that issue where if the person you're sending to no longer has an iThing, it'll still try to send it via iMessage, and it'll not iWork?

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Pseudo-SMS

      "The clever thing with iMessage in particular is that it's just a BBM clone for iDevices"

      Fixed it for you.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Pseudo-SMS

      it just takes a slightly different route which avoids operator charges

      .. and which GREATLY helps with global SMS intercept. You see, to intercept SMS in a country you have to subvert at least one operator (of the target phone) or everyone you can get your hands on if the target is abroad. That means a LOT of work, and a lot of goodwill if you want to do it covertly, or quite some cash if you want to do it legally (which seems to be exception rather than rule these days).

      With everyone using stuff like WhatApp and iMessage, it's now easy as pie for US agencies: just go tap the server pool and filter for what you need. As a matter of fact, this goes for some voicemail too - when you ask viber about encryption they are very open about the fact that they use none whatsoever.

      For people who complain a lot about CCTV you sure have weird priorities..

    5. verity33

      Re: Pseudo-SMS

      WhatsApp is cross-platform. You can even use it on iDevices... ;-)

    6. Robert Grant

      Re: Pseudo-SMS

      The clever thing with iMessage in particular is that at first glance, it IS still an SMS you're sending - it just takes a slightly different route which avoids operator charges.

      This is what WP7 did a while before iMessage came out; you can switch messaging mode to send SMS, Live Messenger or Facebook messages, so all conversations are interleaved and look the same. If the contact is on FB/Live Messenger then you can send via those technologies, and WP->WP messaging can happen this way as well. It's cool because it all looks like one chat history with the person, and it'll let you know if they're offline on a certain service. You can still send messages to offline people, though.

      I imagine they'll try and build in Skype messaging as well, if they haven't already, and there are various requests to open up the API completely so WhatsApp/Kik/whatever can also join the party. That'd be ace.

  6. Peter H. Coffin

    Perhaps part of it is that people are slowly coming to realize how tremendously expensive the things are, and that they are exactly 100% pure unadulterated profit to the providers. There is literally no incremental cost of the thing -- it's using an unused data channel in the signal and broadcasts on that on an "as available" basis, so it costs literally nothing to send or receive.

    1. John Hughes

      I guess that's why my provide gives 'em to me for nothing.

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Try being over here in the former colony / land of the free - I get charged 25c for RECIEVING a text on one plan.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Contact your carrier

        Contact your carrier, and put a block on all SMS to your phone - I did (on Verizon). They don't like to admit its an option, they will try to wiggle out of it and sell you their premium "filtering" options or a (more expensive) plan with unlimited SMS, but just say

        "I want a total block on all SMS - no sending, no receiving, no exceptions, no fooling. Either give that to me or I will terminate the contract."

        At least on Verizon, it's free.

        (I have a smart phone and unlimited data - I use IM so that it not only goes to the phone but to my computers as well.)

    3. Fibbles

      I've tried explaining to friends and family how horrifically expensive SMS is. The usual response I get is that "it's cheaper than making a call!". In fairness I do use them myself for expediency but I really wish we in the UK had adopted the the system they use in Japan. Every phone comes with it's own email address. That doesn't sound too impressive considering most of us have smartphones these days with some sort of mail client built in. Imagine it in the 90s though, being able to send messages from a phone to an address independent of a specific device or vice versa.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        IIRC, my first mobile number did in fact come with an email address.

        I can't say I ever used it and I don't think the idea caught on.

        Anyone else reading this from DK may be able to add - LarsG?

        1. Tom 35 Silver badge

          Re: 12345678@[my_operator].dk

          My phone has an email address but...

          It's my phone number and I might not want to broadcast my phone number to everyone.

          It costs 25 cents to send or receive an email (pay for spam!)

          I have disabled it as not useful (and overpriced) the why it works now.

  7. JimmyPage Silver badge

    SMS - useful, but disposable

    I once added an SMS facility to the emergency engineer system I worked on. Wished I hadn't, as they started relying on the damn things.

    Individually, you probably don't realise SMS isn't a guaranteed medium. But when you deal with hundreds a week ....

  8. AbortRetryFail

    How things change

    I remember being on Orange in around 1996 or 1997 and knowing that you could have SMS "turned on" for an extra £5 a month (may even have been £2.50 - I really can't remember) and nobody bothered with that as it seemed pointless. Then Orange changed it so you paid 10p for each message so naturally we all had a go as it was a laugh and suddenly everyone's phones were beeping all the time. That's when texting really took off.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: How things change

      may I be the first to congratulate you on inventing texting, then, Mr Gore.

      1. AbortRetryFail

        Re: How things change

        I've just looked at my CV to make sure I wasn't confused, and it was definitely during 1996 as I clearly remember which company I was working for at the time and I left there in November 1996.

        However, it could have been only Orange-to-Orange SMS before the full integration that the article mentions. Most of us were on Orange there.

  9. IronSteve

    Receiving a text in between games of Snake on a Nokia 3210...the golden age of SMS.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I don't know whether T9 helped SMS take off, as it seemed to emerge around the turn of the century when everybody was getting a mobile phone.

      My old man has recently got his first phone with a qwerty keyboard, albeit a virtual one, so has started using SMS messages for the first time ever*. He might be bucking the 'peak SMS' trend, as he's tried to send an SMS a dozen pages long. Ah well. Fortunately, his phone allowed the message to be be copied and then pasted into its email client- with better results.

  10. AJ MacLeod

    Can hardly believe it's been twelve years since I started using SMS, it was probably partly responsible for my getting married... my wife is still the person I message most though this year as she also got a BlackBerry phone we've moved to BBM which is definitely far superior in use (though obviously lacking the universality of SMS.)

    SMS is great for quick messages to customers asking for extra snippets of information or saying that something's ready - saves a load of time on the "polite chat" parts of phone calls and you know that if you're calling at an awkward moment they'll deal with it when it suits them...

  11. Spoonsinger

    We've reached Peak SMS?

    A bit statistically unsound, making that statement, no? Or are you using another spheres analysis techniques?

  12. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Nice work if you can get`

    " the O2 engineer who sat up all night taking out the swearing, for which they were paid a pound a time."

    Can I get a job removing swearing from internet posts for a quid each?

    1. Montreal Sean

      Re: Nice work if you can get`

      You'd bankrupt the planet before even making a dent in the web. :)

  13. mark l 2 Silver badge

    Its been around for 20 years but yet Virgin Australia and 3 UK can't see to get their SMS to work with each other, not been able to receive text messages for over a month from my family in Australia and Virgin mobile AU and 3 keep blaming the other party for it not working.

    Vodaphone Australia to 3 UK works fine though so know its not a handset problem

  14. Herby Silver badge

    Of course, there is ONE problem...

    My wife doesn't understand the word "short". She insists on being a bit long on her texts, many a paragraph, most more.

    Yes, she has an Jesus phone which she likes to use.

    So much for SHORT message service (*SIGH*).

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    lol d registR mAd me Laff yt agen

  16. Crosser

    mmO2 (or the O2 brand) didn't exist in 1996. Also it was Mercury 121 then not one2one.

  17. Christian Berger Silver badge

    Actually it used to be free in Germany

    Which meant that some clever guys made the artcom egate.

    You could send and receive e-mail and even access the web via SMS. Since SMS were free in Germany, this really was popular and useful.

    It was done by Frank Rosengart who is, as far as I know still around. Maybe that would be someone worth interviewing.

  18. Alan Brown Silver badge

    Not in the UK, but...

    18 years ago, my company was using SMS to organise our 5 staff on site visits, etc.

    About 18 months after we started doing this, Vodafone started advertising SMS text services as being great for business and personal communication - and doubled the price (10c/message became 20c/message)

  19. Marketing Hack Silver badge

    OMG!!! H20BD SMS TXT!!!

    With the title standing as a stark commentary on the "communications revolution" that SMS enabled!! :)

    What's textspeak for "Be careful what you wish for"? Would it be "B CAREFL WUT U WSH 4?"

    1. veti Silver badge

      Re: OMG!!! H20BD SMS TXT!!!

      Well, sure, you can write like that if you want.

      But with a decent predictive texting phone and a basic keypad, it would be quicker and easier to text "Be careful what you wish for".

      Txtspk is useful in three cases: if your message is more than 153 characters long and you want it to be less (rare); if your phone isn't programmed for the language you're using; or if you want to use slang to show your kewlness. Any other time, it's actually more work than typing standard words.

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