The Triumph of Texting
Texting is as flexible as email, as immediate as a call, and as close as the computer in your pocket. Those features make it popular worldwide.
In the developing world, however, texting (Short Message Service, or SMS) plays an additional role as an “alternate internet.” Three billion largely poor or rural users depend on SMS to transfer money, find jobs, connect to social networks, and more.
The Triumph of Texting
Look past the stereotype of frivolous teenage gossip. You’ll see a powerful and essential technology used for everything from banking to shopping, from writing novels to voting.
More than 4.5 billion people have access to Short Message Service (SMS), thanks to the availability of cell phones and the extraordinary expansion of cell towers, one of history’s largest infrastructure projects. Billions in the developing world who never had telephones, or even reliable mail, are now connected 24/7.
Texting Software Makers and Users
NTT Docomo P-06C cell phone, 2011Japanese cell phone novel, 2011 Manga edition of cell phone novel, 2015
A Technology You Can Bank On
A billion and a half people in the developing world have phones but no bank account. Banking by text can provide a financial lifeline.
More than 25 percent of Kenya’s GDP (the value of all its goods and services) now passes through M-PESA, a text-based payment service that doesn’t even require a sophisticated smartphone.
George Sekut, Maasai Tribesman, Masai Mara, Kenya and M-Pesa
Getting the Message Out
Texting spreads news fast and efficiently. Emergency services use it for tornado warnings, while “citizen reporters” text eyewitness reports—as during the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.
It’s also an inexpensive organizing tool. In 2001, texting helped topple an unpopular Philippines regime. Yet during Kenya’s disputed 2008 election, people used texts to incite violence.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, 2011
In January 2011, hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrated against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Protesters used SMS text messages and photos sent via Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) to organize rallies and distribute breaking news.
Let Your Fingers Do the Talking
Tiny phone keyboards spawned a new way to type.
People long derided thumb typing, but it has become a discreet medium in meetings and classrooms. It’s easy to do one-handed while eating, walking...even on the toilet.
Being in constant touch connects us to a larger community. Yet it can also distract from being fully present in our own lives.
REUTERS/Eric Thayer (United States Entertainment)
National Texting Champion Kate Moore, 15, New York, June 16, 2009
Kate Moore texted her way to victory, winning a grand prize of $50,000 at the 2009 LG National Texting Championship. Competitors participated in texting challenges that tested speed, dexterity, and accuracy, including knowledge of acronyms.
The End of Spelling?
BRB. OMG. HMU. Not quite Shakespearean, perhaps. But is it OK to abbrevi8?
Languages evolve in response to new technologies. Telegraphy’s terse “SOS” became a universal cry for help. Texting has spread LOL for “laugh out loud”.
Is texting’s brevity bastardizing language? Or just high-tech haiku?
Courtesy of Marc Weber/Translation via Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia
Message in Arabic Chat Alphabet, “How are you doing with your studies?” or in Arabic letters: كيف داير في القراية؟
Early phones supported only the Latin alphabet. So, speakers of non-Latin languages, like Arabic, got creative by mixing numbers and Latin letters. Languages using Chinese characters can express some phrases in numbers, like the Cantonese “02825” for “Do you love me or not?”
Instant, But Not Simultaneous
Phone calls connect people in real time…but only if the signal is strong and the person answers. Texting offers similar immediacy—with added reliability.
Texts can arrive almost instantly. But when connections are bad or the recipient’s phone is off, they texts “wait” on a server until they can be reliably delivered. Texts also tend to get noticed, not lost in the noise like email. Both factors fueled texting’s popularity.
Why Just 160 Characters?
Texting takes advantage of a narrow signaling channel that the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) phone networks use to coordinate various components.
The channel’s limited capacity kept Short Message Service (SMS) to 160 characters. But it brought the advantage of using bandwidth not otherwise in demand. So companies could add SMS without jeopardizing their core services and cutting into the main data or voice channels.
Courtesy of Friedhelm Hillebrand
GSM meeting endorsing SMS proposal, Oslo, Norway, 1985
The project to agree on a Europe-wide digital mobile phone standard, GSM, involved telephone companies from around Europe meeting over a number of years. The SMS working group was one small part of that gigantic effort.
Tweet from President Obama Four more years, November 6, 2012. Credit: Barack Obama/Twitter
Postcards—and a narrow signalling channel - limited texts to 160 characters. SMS pioneer Friedhelm Hillebrand found postcards can say a lot in 150 characters. Twitter went further: “tweets” on its internet microblogging platform are 140 characters.
How Dumb is Your Phone?
Smartphones, such as iPhones or Android, offer email and full Web web access. “Dumbphones,” which preceded them, use texting instead of email, and offer services over the phone company’s private network rather than the open internet.
Internet-enabled smartphones are gradually replacing dumbphones. Yet both can text, leaving Short Message Service (SMS) the only universal mobile message medium.
Cell phones were developed as telephones. Developers expected customers mostly to talk, though some might use the phones as mobile computer modems.
A few farsighted engineers managed to get texting included in the general the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard for digital mobile phones. They succeeded in part because it didn’t use extra bandwidth. Carriers conceded that texting might be mildly useful for sending announcements to customers.
Left-Kevin Holley Middle-Friedhelm Hillebrand Right-Finn Trosby
Photo: Begenisic, Nedeljko/Tekniska museet/Courtesy of the Digitalt Museum
GSM mobile phone, functional prototype, late 1980s
Ericsson’s radio division built this laboratory test system for the emerging GSM standard. Pictured is the telephone portion. The base station it connected to was also prototyped in a similar fashion.
Friedhelm Hillebrand, SMS Pioneer, Deutsche Telekom
Ericsson PT680 NMT cell phone, Sweden, mid-1980s
An Accidental Medium?
Texting between customers started out free. Telephone companies didn’t envision it as a popular product.
Young people in Scandinavia and elsewhere were probably were first to text as an alternative to costly calling. Since companies didn’t track texting, early adopters are hard to document. Once texting became popular, fees followed.
Left-Students from Soini Comprehensive School, Finland, December 20, 2002 Right-Babajob employment service, 2009
An Alternate Business Model
Texting’s low hardware cost (even the cheapest phones can text) propelled its growth. Today, texting is big business, generating $115 billion globally in 2014.
Unlike the internet’s ad-driven business model, texting follows the traditional telephone industry approach: fee for service. As smartphones spread, bringing full internet connectivity, which model will prevail?
Photo by Halil Fidan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Shepherd with mobile phone and solar-charging panel, Sanliurfa, Turkey, April 25, 2016
For the 48 million people who have phones but lack electricity, creative charging solutions range from renting access to trucked-in car batteries to buying and carrying solar panels like some Turkish shepherds.