The very first text message was sent 20 years ago, on Dec. 3, 1992. The momentous missive? “Merry Christmas,” wrote Neil Papworth, then a 22-year-old engineer, to Richard Jarvis, an executive at British telecom Vodafone. Jarvis was attending his company’s holiday party in Newbury, England, and received the text on an Orbitel 901, which looks like this:
To be precise, this marks the 20th birthday of SMS, which stands for Short Messaging Service. In most cases, an SMS is sent from one phone to another on a narrow slice of cellular bandwidth called the control channel, an ever-present connection that’s also used to notify phones of incoming calls and signal strength. That’s one reason why SMS has proven to be a durable form of communication during disasters, when traffic channels, which are used for phone calls and larger data transfers, get overloaded.
The control channel’s diminutive size is what accounts for the strict, 160-character cap on text message length. (In turn, that’s why Twitter, which was originally based on SMS, limits tweets to 140 characters, in order to fit the message plus the sender in a single text message.) It’s also why some people argue that wireless carriers gouge their customers by charging several cents per text when the marginal cost to the company is zero: the control channel is used whether or not it’s transmitting an SMS.
In fact, on its 20th birthday, the text message finds itself threatened by a host of free alternatives, from Facebook messaging to Apple’s iMessage. SMS usage is waning in much of the world, now even including the United States, which was slower to the adopt the technology. That decline is likely to accelerate as more people purchase smartphones that are laden with other messaging options, meaning the future of SMS lies in feature-phone markets like India and Africa.
Still, text messaging remains the world’s most widely used form of digital communication, with some six billion to eight billion texts sent per year, according to various estimates. The technology has endured, in part, thanks to its compatibility across different types of phones and networks: SMS didn’t really take off until the late 1990s, when companies and governments began lifting regulations that only permitted sending texts between customers on the same network.
Though other forms of communication had more memorable inaugural messages—”What hath God wrought” was the first telegram—it’s fitting that the first SMS was “Merry Christmas.” Nowadays, the busiest day for text messaging is, in fact, Christmas Eve, when people across the world reach out to each other with short and sweet attempts to connect.