The strange tale of the tiny text messages that conquered the world

December 3, 2007

2 Min Read

9:45 AM -- On December 3, 1992, software engineer Neil Papworth sent the first SMS to Richard Jarvis, a director at Vodafone. Jarvis at the time was at an office Christmas party in London. [Ed note: Good thing he wasn't sending the first-ever picture message.]

Papworth recounts how he had been working on EIR (Equipment Identity Register) and AuC (Authentication Centre) software, when towards the end of 1991 Vodafone contracted his employer, Sema Group, to develop an SMSC (Short Message Service Centre).

To test the installation of the SMSC in Vodafone's network he sent a "Happy Christmas" text to Jarvis's Orbitel mobile phone from the operator's headquarters in Newbury. Little did he know he had sparked a revolution in communications technology.

At the time there wasn't a lot of interest in putting SMS in mobile phones. "Back then you couldn’t do handset-originated messages," says Papworth. "A glorified executive pager -- I think that's how they saw the market using it."

Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) has gone on to become the world's largest mobile operator by revenue. And SMS has become phenomenally popular, with 1.7 trillion (that's 1,662 billion!) messages sent worldwide in 2006, according to Portio Research. Placed end-to-end that's easily enough texts to reach the moon and back. [Huh? -- Space/Time Volume Ed.]

Papworth, now at Airwide Solutions following its acquisition of Sema, is still working on mobile network software. His current project is mining network databases to identify which mobile services different types of handsets and user groups are accessing. The idea is to use this data to help operators better target mobile content to appropriate demographic groups.

Does he feel even the tiniest bit guilty about his role in the way txt spk has butchered the English language? "You mean like Gr8 and that kind of thing?" asks Papworth. "I didn't start that."Tks m8.

— Gabriel Brown, Chief Analyst, Unstrung Insider

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