Karela Fry

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Twenty years of the SMS

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IBN Live commemorates the end of the second decade of the Short Message Service with an article:

SMS (Short Message Service), that is now used more frequently than voice calling on mobile phones completes two decades of its existence on December 3. Today more than two lakh SMSs are sent every second, but this 160-character craze began when Neil Papworth, a 22-year-old British engineer, sent the first text message via Vodafone’s UK network to an Orbitel 901 mobile phone. The message said, “Merry Chistmas.”

There was a gap of eight years from when SMS was first envisaged by Finnish civil servant Matti Makkonen at a telecommunication conference in 1984 to the first actual SMS being sent outside laboratory conditions.

The first commercial SMS services started in 1993 in Sweden, followed by US and UK in the same year. In 1994, Nokia announced the Nokia 2110, which the Finnish company claims to be its first SMS-enabled GSM phone but its predecessor the Nokia 1011 could also send and receive SMS messages.

More imaginatively, the BBC interviews Matti Makkonen by sms:

BBC Tues 15:24: It’s been estimated 8 trillion test messages were sent last year. 20yrs ago how popular did you think sms would get and what did you think it would be used for?

MM: Tues 15:40: 20yrs ago I didn’t see sms as separate issue – it was just a feature in the revolutionary mobile communications system. Very useful for quick business needs.

BBC Tues 15:45: You never got any money for it as you didn’t patent the idea. Is that a regret – or are you glad how things worked out?.

MM Tues 15:58: I dont think I made a patentable innovation, but was one of the early persons to understand the need and the concept. I’m glad the work was done as part of GSM.

BBC Tues 18:03: You’ve been described as the “reluctant father of SMS” and it took a newspaper investigation to identify you. Why were you so quiet about your achievement?

MM Weds 06:05: I did not consider sms as personal achievement but as result of joint effort to collect ideas and write the specifications of the services based on them.

Business Day South Africa reported this interview with Neil Papworth:

Vodacom SA did this SMS interview:

Why did you send the text message?

We were demonstrating that txt msging worked outside the lab.

How did you check the message was delivered, where was the receiving party?

Richard Jarvis was @ the Vdf [Vodafone] Christmas party. A colleague next to him was on the phone (how old-fashioned!) to a Vdf mgr next to me.

What impact did the SMS have on your life personally?

I continued working with SMS for almost 20 yrs.

What was the most important or most memorable SMS you have sent or received?

Announcing the births of my 3 kids 2 family & friends.

Interesting how the idea of a single inventor still dominates popular media; in spite of the fact that for more than a quarter of a century now inventions have been made by teams. Matti Makkonen’s plea falls on the deaf ears of that lighting rod of the zeitgeist: the media. As we know well, the media embraces subtlety very reluctantly in reportage of politics, and not at all in other cases.

The zeitgeist is slow to change, as becomes clear if you look at the history of other inventions. The century old invention of the radio still remains controversial: although J. C. Bose (whose name is totally missing from the Wikipedia article) certainly sent and received the first radio signal, Marconi for many years was said to have invented the radio. Even now a casual search of the web throws up the names of David Hughes, Marconi, Tesla, Hertz, Popov and Branly. However, most of these people learned from each other, and none of them would have been successful without the others. Competition is good for innovation; nations and corporations which forget this and try to put all their reasearch eggs into one basket will forever lose out.

Even earlier, inventors worked within a web of theoretical predictions, failures and partially successful results. The story of the invention of electrical lighting: from Humphrey Davy’s arc lamp to Edison’s lightbulb. An interesting article in the UnMuseum reveals that even inside Edison’s lab the actual work, which involved testing and eliminating hundreds of materials, was done by a large number of engineers. Assigning to Edison the sole credit for the lightbulb is akin to assigning all innovation inside Apple Corp to Steve Jobs: a neat piece of fiction.


Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

December 3, 2012 at 5:22 am

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