May 16, 2021
Texts are sent and received using SMS, or Short Message Service. Due to the amount of bandwidth available on second generation networks, they were limited to 160 characters initially. You know the 140 character max from Twitter, we are so glad you chose to join us on this journey where we weave our way from the topmast of the 1800s to the skinny jeans of San Francisco with Twitter.
What we want you to think about through this episode is the fact that this technology has changed our lives. Before texting we had answering machines, we wrote letters, we sent more emails but didn’t have an expectation of immediate response. Maybe someone got back to us the next day, maybe not. But now, we rely on texting to coordinate gatherings, pick up the kids, get a pin on a map, provide technical support, send links, send memes, convey feelings in ways that we didn’t do when writing letters. I mean including an animated gif in a letter meant melty peanut butter. Wait, that’s jif. Sorry.
And few technologies have sprung into our every day use so quickly in the history of technology. It took generations if not 1,500 years for bronze working to migrate out of the Vinča Culture and bring an end to the Stone Age. It took a few generations if not a couple of hundred years for electricity to spread throughout the world. The rise of computing took a few generations to spread from first mechanical then to digital and then to personal computing and now to ubiquitous computing. And we’re still struggling to come to terms with job displacement and the productivity gains that have shifted humanity more rapidly than any other time including the collapse of the Bronze Age.
But the rise of cellular phones and then the digitization of them combined with globalization has put instantaneous communication in the hands of everyday people around the world. We’ve decreased our reliance on paper and transporting paper and moved more rapidly into a digital, even post-PC era. And we’re still struggling to figure out what some of this means. But did it happen as quickly as we identify? Let’s look at how we got here.
Bell Telephone introduced the push button phone in 1963 to replace the rotary dial telephone that had been invented in 1891 and become a standard. And it was only a matter of time before we’d find a way to associate letters to it. Once we could send bits over devices instead of just opening up a voice channel it was only a matter of time before we’d start sending data as well. Some of those early bits we sent were things like typing our social security number or some other identifier for early forms of call routing. Heck the fax machine was invented all the way back in 1843 by a Scottish inventor called Alexander Bain.
So given that we were sending different types of data over permanent and leased lines it was only a matter of time before we started doing so over cell phones.
The first cellular networks were analog in what we now think of as first generation, or 1G. GSM, or Global System for Mobile Communications is a standard that came out of the European Telecommunications Standards Institue and started getting deployed in 1991. That became what we now think of as 2G and paved the way for new types of technologies to get rolled out.
The first text message simply said “Merry Christmas” and was sent on December 3rd, 1992. It was sent to Richard Jarvis at Vodafone by Neil Papworth. As with a lot of technology it was actually thought up eight years earlier by Bernard Ghillabaert and Friedhelm Hillebrand. From there, the use cases moved to simply alerting devices of various statuses, like when there was a voice mail. These days we mostly use push notification services for that.
To support using SMS for that, carriers started building out SMS gateways and by 1993 Nokia was the first cell phone maker to actually support end-users sending text messages. Texting was expensive at first, but adoption slowly increased. We could text in the US by 1995 but cell phone subscribers were sending less than 6 texts a year on average. But as networks grew and costs came down, adoption increased up to a little over one a day by the year 2000.
Another reason adoption was slow was because using multi-tap to send a message sucked. Multi-tap was where we had to use the 10-key pad on a device to type out messages. You know, ABC are on a 2 key so the first type you tap two it’s the number the next time it’s an A, the next a B, the next a C. And the 3 key is D, E, and F. The 4 is G, H, and I and the 5 is J, K, and L. The 6 is M, N, and O and the 7 is P, Q, R, and S. The 8 is T, U, and V and the 9 is W, X, Y, and Z. This layout goes back to old bell phones that had those letters printed under the numbers. That way if we needed to call 1-800-PODCAST we could map which letters went to what.
A small company called Research in Motion introduced an Inter@active Pager in 1996 to do two-way paging. Paging services went back decades. My first was a SkyTel, which has its roots in Mississippi when John N Palmer bought a 300 person paging company using an old-school radio paging service. That FCC license he picked up evolved to more acquisitions through Alabama, Loisiana, New York and by the mid-80s growing nationally to 30,000 subscribers in 1989 and over 200,000 less than four years later. A market validated, RIM introduced the BlackBerry on the DataTAC network in 2002, expanding from just text to email, mobile phone services, faxing, and now web browsing. We got the Treo the same year. But that now iconic Blackberry keyboard. Nokia was the first cellular device maker to make a full keyboard for their Nokia 9000i Communicator in 1997, so it wasn’t an entirely new idea.
But by now, more and more people were thinking of what the future of Mobility would look like. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project, or 3GPP was formed in 1998 to dig into next generation networks. They began as an initiative at Nortel and AT&T but grew to include NTT DoCoMo, British Telecom, BellSouth, Ericsson, Telnor, Telecom Italia, and France Telecom - a truly global footprint. With a standards body in place, we could move faster and they began planning the roadmap for 3G and beyond (at this point we’re on 5G).
Faster data transfer rates let us do more. We weren’t just sending texts any more. MMS, or Multimedia Messaging Service was then introduced and use grow to billions and then hundreds of millions of photos sent encoded using technology like what we do with MIME for multimedia content on websites. At this point, people were paying a fee for every x number of messages and ever MMS. Phones had cameras now so in a pre-Instagram world this was how we were to share them. Granted they were blurry by modern standards, but progress. Devices became more and more connected as data plans expanded to eventually often be unlimited.
But SMS was still slow to evolve in a number of ways. For example, group chat was not really much of a thing. That is, until 2006 when a little company called Twitter came along to make it easy for people to post a message to their friends. Initially it worked over text message until they moved to an app. And texting was used by some apps to let users know there was data waiting for them. Until it wasn’t. Twilio was founded in 2008 to make it easy for developers to add texting to their software. Now every possible form of text integration was as simple as importing a framework.
Apple introduced the Apple Push Notification service, or APNs in 2009. By then devices were always connected to the Internet and the send and receive for email and other apps that were fine on desktops were destroying battery life. APNs then allowed developers to build apps that could only establish a communication channel when they had data. Initially we used 256 bytes in push notifications but due to the popularity and different implementation needs, notifications could grow to 2 kilobytes in 2015 and moved to an HTTP/2 interface and a 4k payload in 2015. This is important because it paved the way for iChat, now called iMessage or just Messages - and then other similar services for various platforms that moved instant messaging off SMS and over to the vendor who builds a device rather than using SMS or MMS messaging.
Facebook Messenger came along in 2011, and now the kids use Instagram messaging, Snapchat, Signal or any number of other messaging apps. Or they just text. It’s one of a billion communications tools that also include Discord, Slack, Teams, LinkedIn, or even the in-game options in many a game. Kinda’ makes restricting communications a bit of a challenge at this point and restricting spam.
My kid finishes track practice early. She can just text me. My dad can’t make it to dinner. He can just text me. And of course I can get spam through texts. And everyone can message me on one of about 10 other apps on my phone. And email. On any given day I receive upwards of 300 messages, so sometimes it seems like I could just sit and respond to messages all day every day and still never be caught up. And get this - we’re better for it all. We’re more productive, we’re more well connected, and we’re more organized. Sure, we need to get better at having more meaningful reactions when we’re together in person. We need to figure out what a smaller, closer knit group of friends is like and how to be better at being there for them rather than just sending a sad face in a thread where they’re indicating their pain.
But there’s always a transition where we figure out how to embrace these advances in technology. There are always opportunities in the advancements and there are always new evolutions built atop previous evolutions. The rate of change is increasing. The reach of change is increasing. And the speed changes propagate are unparalleled today. Some will rebel against changes, seeking solace in older ways. It’s always been like that - the Amish can often be seen on a buggy pulled by a horse so a television or phone capable of texting would certainly be out of the question. Others embrace technology faster than some of us are ready for. Like when I realized some people had moved away from talking on phones and were pretty exclusively texting. Spectrums.
I can still remember picking up the phone and hearing a neighbor on with a friend. Party lines were still a thing in Dahlonega, Georgia when I was a kid. I can remember the first dedicated line and getting in trouble for running up a big long distance bill. I can remember getting our first answering machine and changing messages on it to be funny. Most of that was technology that moved down market but had been around for a long time. The rise of messaging on the cell phone then smart phone though - that was a turning point that started going to market in 1993 and within 20 years truly revolutionized human communication. How can we get messages faster than instant? Who knows, but I look forward to finding out.