Monday, December 03, 2012


You probably caught it on the news this morning. The story usually starts with "Happy Birthday SMS."  I don't know how kids would abbreviate that today but I'm sure they do. The news stories all quote the first SMS message back in 1992.
"The first SMS message was sent over the Vodafone GSM network in the United Kingdom on 3 December 1992, from Neil Papworth of Sema Group (now Mavenir Systems) using a personal computer to Richard Jarvis of Vodafone using an Orbitel 901 handset. The text of the message was "Merry Christmas."
America didn't text anyone for another six months when Brennan Hayden, an engineer working for Aldiscon  testing their brand new SMS system sent a test message to his boss literally just the word "burp." It speaks volumes about cultural differences. [Source] It's a pretty nifty tech story but it totally skips over all the technological progress that it took to get there. In technology, the struggle is the glory and SMS (Short Message Service) wasn't the first telephony texting protocol by a long shot. 

But there wasn't much innovation in SMS in the first place. Prior to the innovations that allowed us to broadcast voice, we were all sending text by Morse Code be it by cable or wireless. What's really new in SMS is carrying the data via phone protocols over CDMA (Code division multiple access). It was predated by at least half a dozen different text standards for phone: V.21 in Sweden, Bell 103, Turbo Code, and Baudot in the USA, EDT (European Deaf Telephone) in Italy and Spain, V.23 in France, V.18 in the UK and others. Most of those are derived from TTY (Teletype) and worked with 5-bit Baudot code, some used DTMF, but they all worked.

The one that could have beaten out SMS was TAP, the Telocator Alphanumeric Protocol. It was also known as the Motorola Page Entry (PET) as well as the IXO alphanumeric entry protocol until it was adopted by Telocator (now known as PCIA) as a standard in 1988. It was intended to be an industry standard for sending alphanumeric messages to pagers. They had consumer grade gear on the market as early as 1985. It used Bell 103 compatible modems and sent 7-bit data in ASCII at 300 baud. That may sound antiquated but SMS is 7-bit as well. How SMS beat out all contenders I can't begin to guess, but the showdown never happened. More here.

SMS was developed at the GSM cooperation starting in 1984 by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert. GSM was a project by France Télécom, and German Telecom. I don't want you to get the impression that they did the work, They were chairmen of those corporations. They more or less wrote the requirements document, which is like writing a want list for programmers. The fact that we know their names probably just means their publicists know how to use Wikipedia. They first  proposed the system at a GSM meeting in Oslo in 1985, but actual technical requirements didn't exist for years afterward no earlier than 1987, years after TAP. [EOM]