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Text messaging turns 20 as popularity drops

Published: 11:14AM Monday December 03, 2012 Source: ONE News

  • Schoolchildren texting in the mid-2000s. (Source: ONE News)
    Schoolchildren texting in the mid-2000s. - Source: ONE News

The text message reaches its 20th birthday today, but some are questioning how much longer it will survive with the rise of web-based communications freely available on smartphones and tablets.

On December 3 1992 an SMS, or short message service, "Happy Christma" (the s was missed off) was sent by 22-year-old British engineer Neil Papworth from his work computer in Berkshire to Richard Jarvis of Vodafone's Orbitel 901 handset.

Since then it has helped save lives, made phone firms billions and pushed spelling and punctuation in to an early grave.

In 2001 fourteen tourists, including two New Zealanders, stranded in Bali were saved after one sent a message to her boyfriend in England.

Rebecca Fyfe, 19, from Ayrshire in England, sent a message to her boyfriend saying: "Call Falmouth Coastguard, we need help - SOS."

The message was passed on to coastguards in Australia and Indonesian authorities. However, it was days before they could be rescued, the BBC reported.

Text messages calling for help were also sent by victims of the CTV building collapse in Christchurch after the February earthquake, but tragically they could not be reached before they died.

Popularity under threat

SMS is used by 4 billion people around the world. Papworth told Australia's Sky News he never envisaged that texting would be so popular.

"Back then I had no idea - I was just doing a day's testing. It wasn't until the 10th anniversary that I realised and thought 'Wow, that was a big thing'."

But after two decades its popularity is under threat thanks to smartphone apps and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Media watchdog Ofcom reported that the number of text messages sent in Britain peaked at 39.7 billion at the end of last year, but is now down to 38.5 billion, following two quarterly declines.

"For the first time in the history of mobile phones, SMS volumes are showing signs of decline," The Independent quoted James Thickett, Ofcom's director of research, as saying.

"The availability of a wider range of communications tools, like instant messaging and social networking sites, means people might be sending fewer SMS messages, but they are communicating electronically more than ever before."