Text messaging has now been a part of our lives for 20 years. The SMS has always been a powerful medium, but what's the most important one you've ever sent?

How many text messages do you think you’ll send today? Five? Ten? A hundred? Maybe it’s so many that you couldn’t even guess? Spare a thought for those little magic messages, though: texting turns 20 today. Vodafone was there at the very beginning, and we’re at the forefront now. So what’s next for the mighty SMS? And what does texting mean to you? Read on for the stalwart service’s amazing history.

On December 3rd 1992, Vodafone’s Richard Jarvis received a text message that said “Merry Christmas”. And that was a bit special. Why? Because it was the first message ever sent over a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) network in the UK. Those 14 letters, carried through the ether from a computer to the Vodafone-powered Orbitel 901, were the start of something huge – something that would, two decades later, see UK phone owners exchange 4 billion texts per month (according to pocketpicks.co.uk) and hit peaks of 12,000 texts per second on our network.

Stat attack

24 months after that festive opening gambit, Vodafone launched the UK’s first commercial text messaging service, unleashing it into the wild as a link between phones on the same network. It wasn’t until 1999, a full five years later, that texts would play nice across every network – but we were there at the frontier.

“Reports of the death of the text message are premature.”

Those the early years are behind us, though. Today marks a full 20 years since the text message’s official birth, and it’s seen numerous rivals along the way from the likes of web and mobile apps. Are things starting to wain? Not even a tiny bit.

We’ve spoken to Vodafone’s Srini Gopalan to get the inside track on the current state of the 160 character communiqué. The good news? Things are looking good for the SMS:

“Reports of the death of the text message are premature,” he assures us. “It has adapted over the years and remained a key part of the way that people communicate.” Srini says that texting “is now challenging the phone call as the simplest way for a wide variety of organisations and companies to keep in touch with people.”

Hungry for some stats? Reel these off round the dinner table for maximum trivia points:

  • SMS stands for ‘Short Messaging Service’
  • According to Ofcom, 58% of UK adults text their closest friends and family at least once a day
  • In 2011, Ofcom’s research found that Brits sent an average of 200 SMS messages per month
  • In the five minutes following midnight this New Year’s Day, our network handled over 2 million texts and at its peak, over 12,000 texts were being carried every second.
  • Our stats suggest that the amount of texts sent in the UK has increased by around a fifth for the past two years running.

Pushing forwards

Hopefully by now you’re starting to appreciate the massive journey that the humble SMS has been on to become such an ingrained part of our lives. If so, you’ll be keen to know what lies ahead for the indispensable middle man between you and your loved ones.

The biggest trend Vodafone’s seen (and often been a part of) the past couple of years has been giving your texts more power. While it’s great to fire off a message saying you’re running late, the beauty of texts is their ability to do more.

“While it’s great to fire off a message saying you’re running late, the beauty of texts is their ability to do more.”

That might be with the use of text-based codes from daily voucher services. Or it might be the ability for medical practices to send test results straight to a patient’s pocket. Or, as is the case with Vodafone’s pioneering JustTextGiving project, it might be the ability to change lives for the better with nothing but your dancing thumbs.

JustTextGiving, our joint project with JustGiving, has made giving money to charity easier than ever before by stuffing your texts with fundraising superpowers. By firing off a unique text code, you can donate money in less than a minute in a completely secure way.

JustTextGiving is hooked up to every single one of the UK’s 184,000 registered charities, and every last penny of your donation makes it through unscathed. In the 18 months since its launch, JustTextGiving has carried £5 million into the welcoming arms of some of the UK’s most noble causes.

Srini puts it best: “As the last 20 years has proven, the text message is endlessly adaptable and it will be put to ever more innovative uses. I’m sure the text message can look forward to many more birthdays.”

One important message

But it was something else Srini said that’s really got us thinking. While reminiscing about the past 20 years of the SMS, he said the following:

“We tend to take the humble text message for granted but it’s been the carrier of life changing and at times even life-saving news. It’s also fair to say that it’s been used to share a lot of bad jokes.”

It’s made us stop and ponder all the things that text messaging has allowed us to do. And you know what? Those little messages have carried a lot of weight for all of us over the years. Whether it’s telling someone you love them, spreading some life-changing news, changing the world with JustTextGiving, sending for help that may have saved lives or – yep – just sending a joke, they’re our go-to medium.

“Those little messages have carried a lot of weight for all of us over the years.”

As such, we’re dead keen to know what the most important text you’ve ever sent is, and why those 160 characters contained so much power. Direct your view south to the comments section and let us know how a text has changed your life.


Go on… What’s the one important message that’s made the SMS’s 20 year journey worth it for you?