Who were the first power-SMS users?
October 6, 2006 8:27 AM   Subscribe

Who were the first group of people to embrace SMS texting? Did any members of the group who designed the protocol accurately predict how it would be used?

The story of how the growth of texting was not predicted by phone companies is often told. We equally tend to hear that texting took off when it got into the hands of young people. However I seem to recall it was already quite popular before mobile phones became a mass market item (around 2000 I guess).
posted by rongorongo to Technology (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This may not be what you're looking for, but when I was in Ireland in the fall of 2000, texting was HUGE over there. I'd barely heard of it and I don't think I'd ever used it until living there.

When I came back to the States around Christmas of that year, texting was still not a big thing here.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:39 AM on October 6, 2006

Best answer: Some hints on Wikipedia's SMS page, "history" section:

"Most thought of SMS as a means to alert the individual mobile user, e.g. on incoming voice mail, whereas others had more sophisticated applications in their minds, e.g. telemetry. However, few believed that SMS would be used as a means for sending text messages from one mobile user to another."
posted by rom1 at 8:46 AM on October 6, 2006

FWIW, cellphones were pretty mass market in the UK by 1998. Texting was not so popular. My phone could only receive them, and not send!

I think the answer to this question might be the same as if you were asking about picture messaging and the use of cameras on phones. My father, an avid technologist, balked at the idea of having a camera on a phone. It made absolutely no sense to him. It didn't make much sense to me either, but I always told him that people would invent new uses for it. And.. they have.
posted by wackybrit at 8:47 AM on October 6, 2006

More on... Google
posted by rom1 at 8:48 AM on October 6, 2006

Vaguely related story: In 2000 I called (from the UK) a business partner in the US. His secretary told me he wasn't available so I said it was fine and that I'd SMS him instead. "How do you spell that?" she asked. Few people I conversed with in the US even up to about 2001/2002 were familiar with the concept.
posted by wackybrit at 8:49 AM on October 6, 2006

Best answer: I remember texting taking off in a big way here around Christmas 1998, around the time the pay-as-you-go phones started to become available. That New Year was the first time it broke down, as so many people were texting each other.

Did it ever get big in Japan? If not, I guess western Europe has to be the first group of people to embrace it (and still does -- Britain sends more texts in a month than the US does in a year).

As for the designers: The manual for my first phone detailed using it to basically talk to the phone network, or for other technical messages. It took me and my friends about two minutes to cotton on to what it was really for.
posted by bonaldi at 8:56 AM on October 6, 2006

One of the big drivers for SMS popularity outside the U.S. is the way airtime is sold. For as long mobile phones have been popular in the U.S., people have subscribed to semi-expensive plans to get a boatload of minutes. You couldn't go crazy on daytime minutes, but you wouldn't think twice before making a call.

In most non-U.S. markets, airtime is (was?) comparatively expensive and text messaging had a lot more appeal, especially for teenagers without income. Texting was more practical than it was "euro cool," as some Americans seem to think it's supposed to be. It's good for bars. :\
posted by Doctor Barnett at 9:32 AM on October 6, 2006

Statistics at text.it ("the UK's offical guide to messaging") seem to suggest 1999/2000 was the take-off in the UK. SMS use more than tripled between 1999 and 2001. See the Mobile Data Association (related to text.it) too.
posted by patricio at 9:37 AM on October 6, 2006

Best answer: Early adopters:
A survey of over 1000 Norwegian teenagers in Nov 1999 showed that about 95% of them had used SMS, so it was obviously well-established by then. The same paper also reports that the average number of SMS messages sent and received per day had doubled since a similar study in 1998. So that's one claim for 'first group', although I imagine it quickly thrived anywhere teenagers discovered its dual strengths of value for money and suitability for flirtation.

Usage Predictions:
It's rather geeky, but this article [pdf] from Telektronikk (Norway's finest journal for telecom professionals) is an account from one of the protocol designers of the putting together of the specs, with a few insights into how they viewed it at the time.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 10:03 AM on October 6, 2006

I remember in Ireland back around 1995/1996 a lot of the dodgier people I knew from clubbing moved from paging to SMS for their distribution business dealings. There were some unusual gateways in places like South Africa that messages could be routed through for a little touch of untracability. By 97/98 SMS was massive. Part of the reason for its popularity was an artifact of the incredibly high usage rates per minute to voice calls. Many people did not have service plans, they would instead pay crazy money per minute of chat. At first, SMS was free or near as (the companies had not yet deployed comprehensive billing systems to handle it) and people used it a lot to save money. Finally, texting becomes almost necessary in dense urban situations when mobile phone penetration passes a certain threshold. If you're sitting in a crowded pub or bus, it's simply difficult if not impossible to hear your conversation over that of the 15 others within proximity. It's easier just to text someone. Also, surreptitious texting is less obviously rude within a large group than just whipping out the phone for a chat.

When I moved to the San Francisco in 2000, I was surprised at the extraordinary lack of texting by people.
posted by meehawl at 10:18 AM on October 6, 2006

I started university in 1998 - texting took off amongst the group of friends I made around then. (I'm in the UK). By 2001 it was pretty ubiquitous.
posted by greycap at 3:21 PM on October 6, 2006

I live in the UK, and in my final two years of school (1998-2000) pretty much everyone had mobile phones and were texting. In contrast, when I got on the internet a few years later (2001-2002), American friends didn't really understand the craze.
posted by saturnine at 4:15 PM on October 6, 2006

Texting was commonplace in Malaysia (and I'm guessing the rest of Asia) around 2000-2001. Perhaps even earlier.
posted by divabat at 9:01 PM on October 6, 2006

When SMS first came around in Canada (I couldn't tell you when... sometime pre-2000), you could only send text messages to people on the same network as you. Thus, nobody ever used it because we were all on different networks. Also, because phone providers charged to receive as well as make calls, it was actually cheaper for people to make calls. Thus, it was usually deemed much easier to just call somebody rather than send a text msg.
posted by antifuse at 5:18 AM on October 8, 2006

I'd say it was us Finns, but I'm having trouble finding hard data on the subject matter...
posted by slimepuppy at 5:07 AM on October 9, 2006

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