20 years later, texts change conversation
The first SMS text message was sent 20 years ago on Dec. 3, 1992, over the Vodafone GSM network in the United Kingdom. The text of the message was "Merry Christmas."
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When UK engineer Neil Papworth sent the world's first SMS -- short message service -- text message in December 1992, he had no clue his "Merry Christmas" greeting would start a trend that would become part of both revolutions and basic teen conversations.
But 20 years and millions of smartphones later, what was intended to be a tool for brief statements has become the medium that kicks off the day's conversations even before most people are awake.
"Even when most of us are asleep, young adults' smartphones continue buzzing from inbound texts. In fact, 37 percent of 18- to 24-year-old smartphone owners receive texts at 4 in the morning," reads a summary of a recent Experian Simmons national consumer study.
The survey of approximately 25,000 U.S. adults used data from a mobile panel that collects information directly from 1,485 smartphones. The study is accredited by the New York-based nonprofit Media Rating Council, formed by Congress in 1964 to ensure accuracy in measurement services.
Other data had tracked the increased usage of texts over the decades.
The number of yearly text messages sent in the U.S. skyrocketed from 240.8 billion in June 2007 to 2.27 trillion by June of this year, according to Washington, D.C.-based trade group Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.
The jump was likely due to a surge in use among young adults. Fifty-nine percent of all adults and 85 percent of adults ages 18-24 use their phone to text during a typical week, according to the Experian Simmons study.
The most unexpected revelations came from consumers' shifting attitudes toward the importance of a text message, said Bill Tancer, Experian Marketing Services' general manager of research.
"One of the most interesting points we found was that among 18-to-34-year-olds, 48 percent said having a text conversation is as meaningful as a phone call.
"I think in the past text was a way of getting a burst of information to someone to get a quick response. Today I think it's starting to act like a medium of conversation," said Mr. Tancer.
Meanwhile, it has also cut the number of young people who engage in the traditional forum. Smartphone owners ages 18-24 send and receive approximately 3,852 texts per month but only take part in 183 phone calls.
The number of people chipping away at their voice plans increases with age: those ages 25 to 34 send and receive 2,240 texts per month and participate in 190 calls; those 35-44 send 1,557 texts and engage in 215 calls; while those ages 55 and up send and receive 491 texts and take part in 158 calls.
Some may see the death throes of the phone call in those figures, but there's little reason to believe the voice-to-voice platform will ever be eliminated, said Alan Black, associate professor of language technologies at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland.
"Phone calls are still useful for longer interactions, conversations involving negotiations or other long discussions. I think the short phone calls we used to have -- calling to tell someone, 'I'm ready, you can pick me up' -- will be eliminated. But I think phone calls will actually end up being longer because people will only call someone when they want to have a longer conversation."
Just as text won't actually upend the phone call, free means of message sending such as Facebook Chat won't take the place of SMS texting, according to the report. Although alternative instant message service are a fast-growing favorite among web-savvy young users, the Experion Simmons study shows only 8 percent of all mobile adults use their phones for IM or chat services.
Amy Storey, assistant vice president of public affairs for the cellular telecommunications group, said text has grown over the years through photo and video sharing features and bundled wireless plans that provide unlimited messaging options. She also pointed to recent donation campaigns for disaster victims as proof that creative uses for SMS text have multiplied.
"No one can predict what wireless consumers will take to next, but the U.S. wireless industry's history shows they are committed to being at the leading edge of offering those opportunities to consumers and in a unique position to meet their changing demands."
First Published December 19, 2012 12:00 am