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Get the message?

As the SMS celebrates its 20th birthday, there are signs of it losing popularity. Charles Arthur writes.

india Updated: Dec 04, 2012 22:25 IST

As the SMS celebrates its 20th birthday, there are signs of it losing popularity.

It has saved lives and ruined marriages, created a whole new dialect and made billions in profits for phone companies. But as the humble text message celebrates its 20th birthday, some wonder how much longer it will survive in a world of smartphones and all-you-can-eat data.

The number of SMS - short message service - messages being sent has rocketed year after year. But a new generation of users who might once have used texts now use data services such as WhatsApp and BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) for free.

"There's a lot of these services out there - I've counted 25 which have a total of 2.5 billion reported accounts, though many of those will be duplicates," said Benedict Evans, telecoms analyst at Enders Analysis. The first text message was sent in December 1992, when the 22-year-old British engineer Neil Papworth used his computer to wish a 'Merry Christmas' to Richard Jarvis of Vodafone on his Orbitel 901 mobile phone. Papworth didn't get a reply because there was no way to send a text from a phone in those days. That had to wait for Nokia's first mobile phone in 1993.

The first text messages were free and could only be sent between people on the same network, but in 1994 Vodafone launched a share price alert system. The arrival in 1995 of the T9 system, which created 'predictive' texting based on the letters you had typed, meant texting could take off.

Commercial services soon followed, and though they started life as a free service - because operators hadn't figured out how to charge for them - it was realised there was money to be made from texting. By February 2001 Britain was sending one billion texts a month, which was raking in about £100m a month.

In the same year texting became key to people's lives - literally, for 14 British tourists stranded in the Lombok Strait off Bali who were saved after one sent a message to her boyfriend in England.

'Text language' emerged quickly because of the 160-character constraint of the keypad. Abbreviations such as 'l8r', 'gr8' and 'b4' soon had befuddled adults complaining that kids had lost the ability to spell correctly. By 2003 exam markers had grown concerned about text language being used in answers.

Now, though, it's texting that is under threat. The rise of smartphones and data services means the price of sending data has collapsed, and that has led to free services that can send data even when you can't get a phone signal to send a text.

In January the Finnish mobile network Sonera reported that the number of texts sent on Christmas Eve 2011 was 8.5m, down from 10.9m the previous year. In Hong Kong, Christmas messaging dropped by 14%.

But that doesn't mean messaging will go away, or that mobile operators are suddenly going to go bust. Texting is said to coin $1tn over the next seven years as people use it for mobile banking in Africa and India, for charitable giving and for political donations.

"Twitter was imagined as a text message service, that's why each tweet has to be so short. The mechanism by which it's delivered will change, but people will still find it convenient to send short messages to each other," said Evans.