Text messaging at 30: down, but not out

The SMS is 30 years old (Roman Pohorecki / Pexels)
The SMS is 30 years old (Roman Pohorecki / Pexels)

On Saturday, the humble text message turned 30. Yes, as lore has it on 3 December, 1992 Vodafone engineer Neil Papworth sent two words to one of the company’s managers, simply reading “Merry Christmas”. Like billions of SMS messages sent in the intervening 30 years, it went unanswered.

Entering its third decade, it seems unlikely that the SMS will ever recoup the popularity it enjoyed in the early 2000s. In the UK, we sent 150.8 billion SMS and MMS messages in 2012 according to Statista, but that dropped to just 40.9 billion last year.

Of course text messages in the broader sense — messages made up of written text, rather than voices — never went away.

Over 100 billion WhatsApp messages are sent every day, and it’s not hard to see why the app — along with platforms like Telegram, Facebook Messenger and Signal — became the default: they’re more flexible, secure and allow emoji.

That’s infinitely preferable to the bad old days when SMS messages limited us to 160 alphanumeric characters, typed painfully letter by letter on numbered keypads (where we were ultimately charged 10p a time for the privilege).

But despite the awkwardness of it, the enthusiasm that greeted the SMS message was an early sign that the term “mobile phone” wasn’t especially apt — or at least, not in the sense it was understood in the 90s.

Indeed, now the “phone” part of “mobile phone” feels pretty dated. While the pandemic brought voice calls back into fashion, with isolated friends and families desperate to hear a friendly voice again, the trend beforehand was towards chat apps killing off the phone call.

Demographically speaking, this trend seems likely to continue, with conventional wisdom suggesting that Millennial and Gen Z people prefer to dodge traditional phone calls where possible with a strong preference for apps and the written word — or at least the pictorial equivalent. It’s perhaps no coincidence that said Millennials were teenagers just as text messages were gaining popularity.

While SMS messages won’t be their format of choice for future generations for obvious reasons, there’s life in the medium yet. They’re still the way the NHS sends out appointment reminders, a way of donating to charity or voting for contestants on reality TV and used for two-factor authentication.

These edge cases may die out in the future, but with millions of text messages still sent every day, you wouldn’t bet against the SMS being alive and kicking in some form for its 40th celebrations.

For all their current dominance, WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook Messenger have still yet to see in their 15th birthday. With the competition for phone attention spans is more fierce than ever, none of them may match the longevity of the humble SMS.