SMS at 20: Has text messaging reached its peak?

03/12/2012

The humble text message, which celebrated its 20th birthday on Sunday, is past its prime for the first time in history, as new figures show a declining trend of SMS (Short Message Service). This year is the first time the total text volumes in the UK are down; but this represents a tiny drop as people start to switch communications to Facebook, Twitter and iMessage.

Now four billion people around the globe use SMS to communicate with each other. But, for the first time since their inception, text messaging volumes have declined.

New figures from the media regulator Ofcom saw two quarterly declines - by over a billion - in the volume of SMS messages sent in the UK.

The volume of texts sent in Britain reached a peak of 39.7 billion at the end of last year, but have now dropped to 38.5 billion - the first recorded decline.

The pattern is similar in the US where volumes of texts have also dropped, according to a new report.

"For the first time in the history of mobile phones, SMS volumes are showing signs of decline," 'The Independent' quoted James Thickett, Ofcom's director of research, as saying.

"The availability of a wider range of communications tools, like instant messaging and social networking sites, means people might be sending fewer SMS messages, but they are communicating electronically more than ever before," Thickett said.

Technological change is now so rapid and so unpredictable that no one can say how we will be communicating in 20 years' time. However the SMS messages have been defining texts of the past two decades, the reports said.

Neil Papworth, the British engineer who helped develop it the format, was the first person to send a terxt message. He had to type the text on a computer before sending it because mobile phones did not keyboards - these were not developed until 1997.

His text to the company's technical director Richard Jarvis' Orbitel 901 mobile phone simply read 'Merry Christmas'.

"It was a relief that the text went through", says Papworth. "Today it's amazing to see the range of applications. At the time, Vodafone thought it would be used as an executive pager."

It was not until 1999 that messages could be sent and received between different networks.

39.7 billion texts were sent last year in Britain alone last year - that's 661 for each person living in the UK.

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