Happy Birthday: 25 Years of SMS


Short message incoming

"Coming later, must do something first, CU LU" - a text that's very typical for an SMS (Short Message Service). "CU LU" in this case means "I'll see you later, love you". Over the past 25 years, SMS writers have developed a slew of abbreviations of this nature. There are even websites devoted entirely to listing SMS abbreviations.


SMS Premiere

25 years ago, cell phones could not send or receive short messages. Consequently, the first SMS was sent by computer, not mobile phone. The text, sent between British Vodafone technicians testing the prototype SMS system, read: "Merry Christmas."


The inventor

Friedhelm Hillebrand (photo), who then worked for the German postal service, and Bernhard Ghillebaert of PTT (the forerunner company to France Telecom), developed the concept for a Short Message Service in 1984. SMS was a Franco-German development.


How the 160 character limit was set

The models for SMS were postcards and Telex messages. Technicians studied these, and found that nearly all such communications were 160 characters or less in length. That's how the maximum length of SMS messages was decided on.


A golden goose for telecomms companies

As mobile phones and SMS spread rapidly in the mid-1990s, big profits resulted for telecomm firms. In 1996 about 100 million SMS were sent in Germany. By 2012, at the peak, 59 billion were sent. At a price that went as high as 39 cents (€) per SMS, a great deal of money was taken in by telecomms firms.



In German, a new verb emerged to name the action of sending SMSs: "simsen." The neologism was even taken up in dictionaries. Starting in 2009, however, free smartphone messenger apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Zoom, or Twitter (which is technically a "micro-blogging service"), increasingly crowded out the SMS.



Despite all the competition from internet apps, the SMS remains popular in Germany. In 2016, some 12.7 billion SMSs were sent over mobile phone networks, according to the federal telecommunications agency. Mailbox messages and authentification codes for online bank accounts are among the common uses nowadays.

On 3 December 1992, the first SMS was sent. As it grew in popularity, the "short message service" gave mobile phone operators millions in revenues. Even in the age of its Internet successors, SMS lives on.

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