Important lessons that 20 years of SMS can teach us

In common I suspect with many other longer-serving observers of the telecoms industry, the news that it has been all of 20 years since engineer Neil Papworth tapped out his seasonal text message to a friend and unwittingly launched what was to become next most successful service to voice, bought a wry smile to my face. It is tempting to look back and wonder just how we failed to see that one coming. The fact is however we didn’t see it coming and were collectively taken by surprise by the speed with which the world and his dog adopted text messaging as its second most favourite means of telecommunication. While we may find it deeply ironic that the fickleness of human nature could take a multi-trillion dollar global industry by surprise, we should look for the lessons to be learned from the experience.

The first lesson is particularly relevant to what is happening in mobile telecoms at present. Operators are currently in a difficult position because they need to invest in transformational IT strategies and infrastructure that will enable them to roll out mobile broadband services based on largely untested business models. The ability to put together service bundles of previously unimaginable complexity is fast becoming a reality, but pricing strategies have yet to be refined, or indeed defined. Educated guesses about what the end-user might want are finding some traction in services such as offering consumers a degree of control over bandwidth and enabling them to create hybrid ‘family’ accounts, but if nothing else, the history of text messaging teaches us that the best ideas ultimately come from the end users who inevitably vote with their feet. What operators have to do therefore is invest in systems which enable them to offer the very broadest range of services possible and their customers will soon tell them which ones they want and which ones they don’t. It may sound like a scatter gun approach, but we wouldn’t want to miss another killer app like SMS.

The second lesson is more generic, but is nonetheless important for that. It is that some unexpected development, often in combination with other factors, may send the industry off in a completely different direction than was originally intended and could even lead to the demise of strategies and technologies which had been considered integral to the future communications environment, despite having already attracted considerable investment. In the case of text messaging, the victim was consumer paging. Developed around the same time that GSM was rolling out, consumer paging was seen in the early 1990′s as an integral part of the future mobile communications landscape. Backed by some very innovative advertising campaigns and with the pager being punted as a must-have fashion accessory by the likes of Motorola and Benetton, Calling Party Pays (CPP) paging took off almost overnight.

At its most basic, the idea was that the customer bought a numeric pager with a pre-set number off the shelf with no requirement to register, told all their friends their pager number and hoped they were popular enough to be paged. A message would typically consist of the caller’s phone number, on receipt of which the receiving party would call the sender from either a land line or a post-paid cellular phone, if they could afford one. More sophisticated alphanumeric pagers were available but these were expensive and generally only accessible by monthly subscription contracts. Even so, there were plans afoot to establish a European-wide, alpha-numeric, consumer paging network dubbed ERMeS (European Radio MEssaging Service). Plans for CPP and trans-European, and indeed global paging for the mass market came to naught however with the introduction of pre-paid cellular.

Although originally intended for people who couldn’t pass a credit check, the general public were quick to realise that pre-paid cellular not only offered affordable mobile voice, but also an alpha-numeric messaging service which was far superior to CPP, so while it was still in its infancy and as quickly as it had risen in popularity, CPP paging became yesterday’s technology. As a consequence, the consumer paging industry went into rapid decline from around 1997 following the launch  of the first pre-paid cellular tariffs a year earlier. No-one saw that one coming either. Indeed, in 1996, many industry analysts were happy to predict a rosy future for consumer paging but, having joined the ranks of crystal ball gazers myself in recent years, I’ll spare them their blushes and leave them nameless. I will make one prediction of my own at this point however and it is that the next time such a radical change of direction occurs, it will involve business models and/or pricing strategies rather than technologies.

In conclusion, I believe that the 20th anniversary of text messaging should not be allowed to pass without acknowledging the contribution to the popularity of SMS made by Tegic, a pioneering company which developed the first commercially-viable and most successful form of predictive text messaging. I first met the company’s senior engineer and project leader Edward P. Flinchem, in the lobby of a London hotel in January 1998 as he set out to sell the idea to any handset manufacturer that would listen. From the moment he demonstrated the software it was clear that this was a very significant development in messaging technology.

In retrospect, it is obvious that text messaging was always going to enjoy a certain degree of popularity, but it was T9 which made it easier to use. In the process, T9 consolidated SMS’s position in the minds of consumers as the preferred alternative to voice calling and drove the almost exponential growth  in usage we saw in the first few years of the new millennium. Despite that, none of the blogs nor articles I have read celebrating two decades of texting recently, have mentioned Tegic, T9 or Flinchem and his team, so I guess there’s another lesson to be learned. It is that not all pioneers get their place in the history books. So to redress the balance somewhat, when we raise a celebratory glass to Neil Papworth, let’s include Edward P. Flinchem in the toast as well.


One comment

  1. Avatar Sanjeev Nawani 11/12/2012 @ 8:55 am

    With OTT players like Whatsapp grabbing the share of SMS we need to see if it would last another decade or not… i am still positive about it…

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