If SMS service in the United States were a person, it would be able to vote, marry, sign a contract, get a credit card and smoke cigarettes.
Eighteen years ago, on June 7, 1993, the first SS7-based text message in the United States was sent over FleetCall’s network, which eventually became Nextel.
The message wasn’t a repeat of the words spoke by Alexander Graham Bell over the first telephone line in 1876: “Mr.Watson, come here, I want to see you.”
Instead, it was “Burp,” says Brennan Hayden, who claims to have sent the message from FleetCall’s short message service center on a hot day in Los Angeles nearly two decades ago.
“The idea was the phone was getting the first message, it was a baby, anthropomorphization of the phone,” Hayden explains, adding that the message fell a bit flat with FleetCall’s executives. “There was dead silence, and then they said, ‘Send a different message.’ So I send something like ‘Watson come here.'”
At the time, Hayden was working for Irish telecommunications firm Aldiscon, which had been hired to set up the messaging system in FleetCall’s network by Nortel, which was contracted to supply the operator’s switch infrastructure by Motorola. Aldiscon later became Acision.
As Hayden tells it, the system only worked on a few hand-built Motorola handsets that had to be flown in from Chicago for the launch of the technology. Neither Motorola nor Sprint, which bought out Nextel in 2005, could confirm Hayden’s story.
Hayden says that he didn’t realize the magnitude of the occasion. Instead of breaking out champagne after the successful test of the technology, he and other engineers who handled the launch sat around and ate Chinese food. Hayden still works in the wireless industry and became co-owner of mobile media company Wireless Developer Agency, where he currently serves as vice president, in 2001.
Less than two decades after Hayden sent “Burp” out over the airwaves, millions of text messages are flying over wireless networks every day. ABI Research estimates more than 7 trillion SMS messages will be sent worldwide this year alone.
With just 160 characters per message, SMS has spawned its own language (which English majors h8); has nearly replaced voice calls for a generation of young wireless subscribers; provided Middle Eastern revolutionaries with a way to communicate to Twitter; and has allowed practically anyone with a cell phone to send donations to disaster relief efforts around the globe, from Haiti to Japan.
The United States wasn’t the first country to test SMS. The first SMS message is widely believed to have been sent over Vodafone’s GSM network in the United Kingdom in 1992, with operators in Norway, Finland and Sweden following suit in 1993.
It would be years before SMS hit the market in a big way. AT&T, for instance, didn’t make the service commercially available until October 2000. Operators had to deal with billing systems, interoperability, handsets and determine whether SMS would cannibalize voice revenues.
Charles Landry, who heads Syniverse’s global messaging business, thinks SMS hasn’t hit the ceiling on growth. “We think that SMS and MMS still have tremendous headroom to grow,” he says. “SMS is a ubiquitous technology. Whether you have an advanced smartphone or the simplest Nokia, you can send a text message to each other and sometimes a picture. We don’t see that going away.”