HomeArticleThe History of SMS as Communication Method

19 March 2021

The History of SMS as Communication Method

SMS might be seen as a relic of a bygone era for a lot of people who have been used to over-the-top (OTT) instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram for their work and personal communications. Recently, however, brands and governments have increased their use of SMS text messages to implement their digital marketing and public information activities, respectively. You might have noticed this in your smartphone in the past few years. 

It will be interesting to revisit the history of SMS as people’s medium of written communication, considering how SMS has seemed to decline in personal communications and resurfaced in usage for business and public information purposes.

The Origins of Short Messaging Services

Although the millennial generation, born between 1981 and 1995, might remember the late 1990s and early 2000s as the advent of SMS with the availability of mass market, compact-sized cell phones, the platform had actually been born before that. 

SMS had dated back to 1984, from the invention of two German engineers: Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghilebaert. Phone calls, telegrams or airmails had been the only two communications media, slow and quick, respectively. Thus, the engineers were trying to invent a system which would allow the transmission of written messages through the existing telephone network by using the phone’s unused capacity based on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard. Finally, eight years after that in 1992, the first SMS was sent using a personal computer, using an Orbitel 201 handset through the Vodafone GSM network.

The development and adoption of the SMS technology was quite slow. In 1995, the average number of messages sent per customer per month was just 0.4 in the United Kingdom (UK). The low adoption was due to operators, such as the fact that people could only send SMS to users of the same operator networks. It was not until 1999 that people could send SMS to phone numbers using different operators. In its early days, the SMS also used to have some billing problems and restrictions which, upon being eased, boosted the usefulness of SMS text messaging and increased adoption. 

By the end of 2000, UK users were sending an average of 35 text messages per month. In 2010, it was reported that 6.1 trillion messages were sent globally. The rapid adoption is also thanks to the ease with which people can type in their cell phones, from the first, most common method of multi-tap, in which you have to tap the keypads several times, say tapping the “3” key three times to produce the letter “f”, which is not very efficient, to the most recent QWERTY model, which makes it easier to type with more people getting used to typing in the computer keyboard.

Current Trends in the Era of OTT Technologies

Even with the rise of OTT messaging technologies like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and others, the use of SMS has not declined; its purposes have only shifted from a personal communication platform to a more business-oriented one, whether private or public, as has been mentioned early in the story. 

In 2014, it was reported that the global SMS messaging business was worth over US$100 billion, accounting for about 50 percent of all revenue generated by mobile messaging, and surprisingly SMS has about 98 percent open rate. It is not as intrusive as cold calls and yet can be more immediately opened than emails.

This is why, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses and governments reach out to their customers and constituents, respectively, for digital marketing and public information activities on their parts through SMS. Aside from being used to spread messages, SMS text messages are also used by various e-commerce, digital banks and social media accounts to boost their users’ digital security by sending one-time passwords (OTPs) and tokens.

It is no wonder that many businesses and governments have been adopting SMS platforms to conduct the communication strategies en masse right now.

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