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Happy birthday, SMS!

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by Ashly Morrison.


Today marks the 20th birthday of SMS (Short Messaging Service), or the 'text', as it's more commonly known.

Last year, we in the UK sent 39.7 billion of them. In a country of roughly 62 million people, that's a pretty mind-boggling figure. But when the SMS was first dreamed up and created, what was its predicted use? And what did the first text say?

Well, on this historic day 20 years ago, phone engineer Neil Papworth sent the first ever text to Richard Jarvis, the head of Vodafone, who was attending the Vodafone Christmas party across the other side of town at the time. I imagine the Champagne cork popped just a few minutes after he received this first text, which simply said: 'Merry Christmas!'

At the time, SMS was originally expected to take over as the next step in the generation of executive pagers. Remember those? A friend of mine had one and it was massive pain in the neck (from my point of view). You had to ring up a service centre, tell the operative what you wanted to say, then they would type it out and read it back to you (and make sure that the spelling was right). The message was then relayed to the relevant pager...and then you would, in theory, get a call back from the pager owner, or they would go and do what they had to do according to the instructions. Long-winded? I'll say!

Whatever the expectations, he couldn't have imagined that we in the UK would send 39.7 billion texts in just one year. And yet now we would think it inevitable that such a convenient and low-maintenance means of communication would revolutionise the way we interact. And yet the same was true when Alexander Graham Bell invented the first telephone in 1876. Without a hint of false modesty, he claimed that, "the telephone is such an important invention that one day every town will have one"! If only he knew where his invention would lead us.

Sending a text is such a simple process that (no offence intended) even the most technophobic member of the older generation can do it. This is the same generation that asked their children to programme their [then] hi-tech video recorders, let's remember.

There are clearly some situations where a text is inadequate or plain wrong, though. Breaking up with someone by text, for instance, is a pretty cowardly way to go about it. But on a professional basis, I remember being rather irked a couple of years ago when I was told I hadn't got a job I applied for by text. In fact, I was so annoyed by this disrespectful act (given that I'd had to jump through a number of hoops and spent many hours completing tests during the selection process) that I wrote a blog about it. For all I know, the sender was sitting on the loo when she communicated to me that I hadn't got the job.

There's a whole unspoken etiquette surrounding texting too. A lot of people I know expect an immediate reply to a text because it's considered to be less intrusive - and you can do it in a boring meeting if you're skilled enough to nod in the right places while holding your phone discreetly under the table. Theatre goers do it as well, unfortunately, which is annoying. That little glow of light is no less distracting than the rustling of sweet packets.

Then there's all the other stuff the 'yoof' of today are doing with SMS. Goodbye face-to-face shyness - hello 'sexting'. That's texting of a sexual nature, in the unlikely event that you can't work out what it is. And there are the more adult-based scandals which centre around texting. Think David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks. Plus there is the crime aspect, with terrorists using SMS to send instructions to time their scheduled attacks.

But in the broader and ordinary scheme of things, texting is the best thing since sliced bread – including sliced bread. It's as much part of all our daily lives as checking our email or updating our Facebook status while we're on the bus.

Oh, just one thing: why does my Word program highlight 'texting' while I'm typing this blog, as if the word doesn't exist? The 'correction' options it comes up with are: testing, tenting, textile, texturing, extinguish, Textron, extinct and questing. Textron? Get with the times Word program developers - this technology is 20 years old now!

Final thought: what is the next stage in terms of being instantly contactable, anywhere? It's interesting that, this year, we 'only' sent 38.5 billion texts compared to 39.7 billion last year. Is it on the way out? I doubt it – though I'd like to know what caused the decline. The phone is clearly here to stay; most of us have email on our phones; we're forever updating Twitter and Facebook; and we can feel connected to anyone in our phone book instantly by sending them a text. So what next? Dare I suggest that the next thing will be...silence? A complete absence of communication? Well, for one day a year on a self-imposed No Texting Day, maybe. Lol...

Ashley Morrison is a blogger, copywriter and editor. 
Twitter: @Ashley_Morrison

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