On December 3, 1992, a mobile phone running Vodafone’s UK network received the first ever SMS, simply saying “Merry Christmas”, from a computer. Twenty years on, the Short Message Service has become immensely popular, an inextricable feature of all mobile phones. Though the feature was initially created as a business enabler, providing a means for quick corporate communications, SMS was quickly adopted by a surprisingly diverse demographic. After all, it was teenagers who developed the abbreviated SMS language, a means to fit more words in a service that limited the number of characters per message (the grandfather of Twitter, if you will). Such is the popularity of SMSs that the number of messages sent saw an increasing annual growth rate till 2011, with alternate messaging services only now managing to make a dent in SMS numbers. In 2010, an approximate 6 trillion SMSs were sent globally, which grew to 7.8 trillion in 2011. This figure, however, is projected to grow to only 9.5 trillion by 2016. The reason for this growth slowdown and eventual decline of messages is no fault of SMS technology; overall, technology has progressed enough to make SMS a more expensive alternative to internet-enabled smartphone apps like Whatsapp, Viber, etc. In 2011, around 3.5 trillion messages were sent using data-enabled messaging apps, projected to grow to a whopping 20 trillion by 2016.
But by no means are SMSs dead. They are still the medium of choice for mobile promotions and advertisements (“No more looking! Dream house of choice now available!”). In addition, the marriage of reality television with SMS voting has greatly boosted SMS revenue for telcos, especially since the voting SMSs sent are charged at premium rates—R3-6 per SMS. It is unlikely SMSs will survive another 20 years, but for now they remain an important, if increasingly marginalised, feature of mobile phones.