BERLIN: The age of SMS messaging began 30 years ago with the a simple greeting: "Merry Christmas". Initially ridiculed as something nobody would use, it soon conquered mobile communications – only to be ousted again years later. And yet the SMS is somehow still thriving.
As with many other technical wonders, you can quibble over who came up with the Short Message Service, or SMS, which fired off its first missive on December 3, 1992, with the words "Merry Christmas".
It's largely accepted that the concept appeared in Germany in 1985, when postal service manager Friedhelm Hillebrand proposed using surplus mobile network capacity to send and receive short texts.
People scoffed at the electrical engineering graduate's aim to limit the length to 160 characters, although he reasonably argued that faxes and postcards seldom use more.
But it was British software developer Neil Papworth who sent the world's first acknowledged SMS for Vodafone seven years later, conveying festive greetings from his computer to the mobile phone of Vodafone manager Richard Jarvis.
The new service was commercially launched 15 months later at the CeBIT 1994 computer fair in Hanover. Prices were steep by today's standards. Messages initially cost 39 pfennigs each, but with the euro's introduction, 19 cents became the going price for an SMS. Discounters then drew customers with prices of 5 or 6 cents.
The SMS fast emerged as a giant cash cow for the telecoms industry. As early as 1998, Germany hit the 1-billion message threshold for the first time, with an all-time peak of almost 60 billion in 2012.
At Deutsche Telekom, the SMS reached a record high at the turn of 2011/12, when a staggering 137.4 million text messages were sent on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
The SMS boom brought billions in profits to the coffers of telecom providers, but it also revolutionized the way young people in particular communicated with each other.
A new linguistic economy, due to the SMS character limit, spawned hip new abbreviations like LOL (laugh out loud) or TBH (to be honest), many of which have survived as jargon on social media.
In the early days, writing texts was fiddly compared with our smartphones now. There was no keypad with letters, only digits from 0 to 9 as well as * and #. Each digit had multiple letters assigned to it, so to write an "f" you had to rapidly press the 3 key three times: d-e-f.
Not many people use SMS for private or professional communication these days. In Germany, the number of text messages sent fell steadily each year since the 59.8 billion peak in 2012, hitting a low of 7 billion in 2020. Then 2021 saw an uptick to 7.8 billion messages, giving fresh hope to the industry.
"The SMS was an innovation 30 years ago, but it is not yet bygone technology – it will be with us for many years to come," says Tanja Richter, head of technology at Vodafone Germany.
Its saving grace is that SMS is often used in applications such as online banking to send mobile transaction numbers. At Telefónica O2, SMS traffic in this area has doubled over the past four years.
"SMS will continue to play a role in communication," says Bernhard Rohleder, CEO of Germany's Bitkom digital association. "Not only for people who don't have a smartphone, but especially for authentication methods such as payment services."
However, SMS will no longer produce billions in profits because of the emergence of internet-based messenger services, most of which are free (or, like Threema from Switzerland, only cost a small sign-up fee).
Better still, messaging apps like WhatsApp, ICQ, iMessage, Signal, Telegram, Viber or Wire protect your messages with encryption.
Network operators are now offering their own SMS successor, RCS (Rich Communication Services), which also offers encryption. But RCS so far failed to establish itself either in Germany or internationally.
This is mainly due to the fact that RCS is only supported on Google's Android platform. Apple uses its own SMS successor for the iPhone with iMessage, which is not compatible with RCS.
Nor is this likely to change any time soon. Apple CEO Tim Cook dismissed RCS at a recent conference, saying "I don't hear our users asking that we put a lot of energy in on that at this point".
Someone at the event said he would like to send a video from iPhone to his mother, who has an Android smartphone. "Buy your mum an iPhone," came Cook's laconic reply. – dpa