SMS at 20: How the role of SMS has changed in two decades

SMS at 20: Texting has become a way of life, particularly for children and teenagersThe humble text message, alien to generations before mine but something that has forever changed our primary means of communicating with people in our mobile phone contacts, reaches 20 years old today.  Most of the column inches dedicated to its anniversary will touch on the decline of SMS and the uprising of smarter, richer platforms like BBM, WhatsApp, iMessage & Facebook Messenger – but had text messaging not fundamentally changed our mobile behaviour, none of these new technologies would have ever existed. 

The text message has spawned an entire new language of abbreviations and shortenings – some so influential, that the likes of LOL, OMG and LMAO have taken pride and place in the Cambridge English Dictionary.  Brand new words, (sexting) terms (text-bomb) and playful takes on punctuation (emoticons) have all also emerged from our obsession with texting.  We’ve spent thousands (nay, millions) of pounds on texts voting to save our favourite reality game-show contest or downloading any number of Crazy Frog-type ringtones.  We’ve used the text message as a means of communicating the most heart-wrenchingly emotional things that could never be said face-to-face and at the other end of the spectrum been guilty of calling off the most intimate relationships in a devastatingly cold and heartless 160 characters.  And let’s not forget that the MMS has been the undoing to one or two top flight footballers too.

On its 20th birthday, you can look back and see how much the text message has grown up.  As a 14 year old armed with my new Sagem GSM mobile, I could only save 20 messages at a time so took to writing the best ones in a paper notebook.  Pre-Nokia 8210, my world was without message delivery reports (you’re ignoring someone, but they know you’ve read their message), predictive text (hello text tenosynovitis) and image-based emoticons (: /)  Today, I tap one button and Siri does the writing and sending for me.

Of course, we sometimes forget that there are still 18 million mobile phone owners in the UK[i] who haven’t got the latest smartphone and who use their handset primarily to makes calls, take the occasional picture and send text messages.  It’s a medium that isn’t reliant on ‘superfast 4G’ (or 3G for that matter) or having an app installed; and it’s often more discreet and quicker than dialling a number to call someone.

What’s more, 95% of texts are opened within 30 seconds of being received[ii] and the average man-on-the-street only has one mobile number (vs. 5 or 6 email accounts for spam) making SMS an advertiser’s dream, allowing them to talk to their consumers one-to-one. By working with the operators, and now the new joint venture WEVE (made up of O2 Media, EE & Vodafone), Mindshare are able to connect the right brands with the right customers at the right time using highly targeted and relevant messages, based on their mobile behaviour and proximity to specific retail stores. In a world where we’re bombarded ad messages on every screen we look at, surely the one that is more personal to us holds the most value for brands.

Text messaging as we once knew it might soon be retired to the mobile history books alongside WAP sites, sliding keyboards and Xpress-on covers, but its legacy lives on in our smart mobile device world through touchscreen, gesture and voice.

James Chandler is head of mobile at Mindshare.


[i] Comscore, MobiLens, October 2012,UK

[ii] O2 Media, 2011