texting is 20 years old

Happy Birthday Texting!

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Dec 14, 2012

Sometimes, you never know…

At first, it was just a “Merry Christmas” message sent from a computer terminal to a cell phone. The year was 1992, the firm was Vodafone, and the goal was just a better way for secretaries to page their managers. The managers, though, could not reply. And anyhow, they figured the service was limited because it was too much of a hassle to type a message.

Think of what had to happen between then and now.

  • Develop a 2-way system so the recipient could reply.
  • Enable texting among different networks.
  • Figure out what to charge and how to charge.
  • Redesign cell phones.
  • Develop “text-speak.”

And the rest is history. In the US, in 1995, the average user sent 0.4 texts a month; by 2000 it was 35 a month; now Pew Internet says the “median teen text user” sends 60 messages a day. And texting has become a $150 billion business.

Below, CNN interviews Neil Papworth, who was 22 when he sent the “Merry Christmas” text 20 years ago.

Our bottom line? While sometimes you never know where innovation will go, Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) would remind us that it leads to creative destruction.

A final fact: It is interesting to ponder the words that accompany innovation. For the telegraph (1844), Samuel Morse tapped: “What hath God wrought?” With his telephone, Alexander Graham Bell said (1876), “Mr. Watson, come here–I want to see you.” And, Neil Papworth, the gentleman who sent the first text message said that most engineers are happy just to say, “Testing, testing testing.”

Sources and Resources: During the The Economist’s Babbage weekly podcast, I first heard about the texting birthday and then read a bit more about it here, here and here. And here, you can read more of the Pew Internet study in “Teens and Smartphones.”

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