The first text message was sent by Neil Papworth over the Vodafone GSM network. At the time, mobile phones weren’t capable of sending texts, so Papworth typed the message on a computer and sent it to an Orbitel 901.
Text messages took awhile to catch on, due to U.S. carriers charging higher rates for texts and the popularity of IM services, such as the soon-to-be-defunct AIM. By 2012 however, mobile users in the U.K. were sending 151 billion texts a year. In recent years, that number has fallen. As of 2017, users in the U.K. only sent 66 billion text messages.
Elizabeth Bruton, of the Science Museum in London, told Sky News that she believes text messaging served as one of the precursors to smartphones because it expanded the possibility of what mobile phones could be used for. Prior to the advent of texting, cell phones were only mobile phones, but texting offered a glimpse of what cell phones would one day become.
“For the very first time we have mobile telephones that were more than just literal mobile telephones, moving beyond voice communications to a new application of the mobile spectrum — to sending, literally, text messages,” Bruton said. “And we can see that continuation through to today when we have hundreds of thousands of applications on our smartphone. So SMS can be considered the first step towards the modern smartphone.”
Texting did more than just influence the rise of smartphones — we can also see the system’s influence in Twitter’s decision to limit tweets to 140 characters though the platform recently doubled that number.
Today, texting is on the decline as the humble SMS has been superseded by apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and iMessage. But texting remains popular due to how easy it is to use. You don’t need Wi-Fi or a data connection to send a text. You just need cell service and a few characters.
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