15 years of SMS: a remarkable growth story

On December 3rd, 1992 a young engineer at Airwide Solutions named Neil Papworth sent the first commercial text message to Vodafone manager Richard Jarvis. Both sender and receiver were present on a recent anniversary party of that first SMS in London. At the time, they couldn’t have imagined the gigantic impact SMS would have on daily life 15 years later.

The phenomenal growth of SMS doesn’t seem to stop: in 2007 an estimated 5 billion SMS messages were sent in Belgium, which is a bit more than 500 messages per person. On New Year’s Eve 2008, 59 billion SMS were sent in Belgium alone; an increase of 25% compared to the year before. UK residents send out more text messages a day than there are worldwide searches on Google that same day.

Let’s be honest: nobody could have predicted or explained the success of SMS beforehand. Each marketer, analyst or product developer in 1992 saw mostly the limitations and barriers of this new service. First of all it’s pretty difficult to type text messages with only 12 buttons. Moreover, the messages are extremely short: which message could one possibly communicate within 160 characters? And finally, sending a SMS is not exactly cheap: counting cost per sent bit, SMS is the most expensive way of communicating in the world. When I received my first SMS on New Year’s Eve 1999, I couldn’t imagine the present commercial success of SMS either.

a remarkable growth story

Yet SMS became a success story in the short term. Which factors explain this success?

  1. Each mobile phone allows SMS: SMS is by default present on each GSM, and there is no need for a separate activation or special configuration.
  2. Accessibility ‘any time, any where’: many people prefer not to be disturbed op their phone; SMS is a practical way to nonetheless contact them fast, no matter where they are.
  3. No technical complexity: although entering a SMS message is not that simple, the sending of it is really easy. SMS works independently of the operator or the device of the recipient.
  4. Limited cost: Sending a SMS is cheaper than making a phone call or sending a letter.

What does the future of SMS look like? This question was recently asked at the Web Goes Mobile Seminar to keynote speaker Tom Weiss, ex-Vice President of T-Mobile. His reply was clear: at least 20 years. Every recent research shows that SMS still continues to grow. Recently, we also see more and more companies using SMS as communication tool. In the sector of recruiting for example, the Flemish VDAB has started early 2008 to inform young job hunters by SMS about new relevant job offers.

Language teachers probably won’t like the sound of it, but SMS is here to stay. And those selling SMS dictionaries will continue to live happy days.

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