Are you a quiz fan? Here’s a question for you: what did Matti Makkonen invent? And, as a supplementary, for what are Neil Papworth and Friedham Hillebrand famous? asks Ralph Adam.
Makkonen, a Finnish post office worker, came up with the idea of SMS (short message service) – so, without his invention, texting would, perhaps, never have become your favourite means of communication! The year was 1984: a conference on the future of mobile communications. During a break in a Copenhagen pizzeria, Makkonen outlined his ideas. He visualised a message-handling tool for the newly-standardised pan-European GSM mobile telephone service. That invention should have made him wealthy, but, unfortunately, like many people with bright ideas, he never patented his creation and made nothing from it. He did, however, later receive one of the coveted Economist Innovation Awards. Makkonen says he originally saw SMS as a modest feature: “useful for quick business needs.”
Papworth was a Sema Group telephone engineer when, in December 1992, 20 years ago, he sent the first-ever SMS. As with so many communications developments, that first text was appropriate, but not exciting. Papworth sent a message reading “Merry Christmas” to Vodafone director Richard Jarvis at his office party. According to Papworth, the original intention was that SMS would be useful for secretaries as an executive paging service to locate bosses when they were away from the office; no one had any idea how gigantic the texting phenomenon would become. At the time, mobile phones did not have keyboards, so messages had to be typed on PCs. A year later, it became possible for replies to be sent.
And where does Hillebrand fit in? It was he who came up with the 160-character (140 octets/bytes) limit for SMSs whilst exploring ways for mobiles to transmit and display messages. He discovered that the average question or sentence needs only 160 characters!
Texting is now the way to stay in contact, especially amongst the young, with more people texting friends and family daily than talking face to face. In two decades SMS has radically changed the way we communicate. Texting has become the most popular mobile data service, with 74 per cent of all mobile phone subscribers worldwide using it. According to the British communications regulator Ofcom, on average we each send about 50 texts a week (between 2006 and 2011 that number almost trebled). However, its use has gone far from that originally intended: the most prolific texters are not, of course, secretaries and their managers, but 12-15 year-olds tapping out nearly 200 every week; almost four times the national average. Girls text 35 per cent more than boys, each sending roughly 220 a week.
Now, for the first time, SMS use is declining, yet people are texting more than ever: they are using other forms of text-based communication, such as instant messaging and social networking sites.
Next time you send a text, remember to thank those three ‘fathers’ of the service, without whom we might still be communicating by phone or in person!
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