hpE BDay, txtN. Most people would now recognize this appropriate form of a Happy Birthday greeting for texting, born two decades ago on Dec. 3, 1992.
On that day, in a moment that ranks with Alexander Graham Bell's legendary "Mr. Watson, come here" inaugural phone call in 1876, a software engineer named Neil Papworth sent a very short message to Vodafone director Richard Jarvis, who received it on his Orbitel 901 cell phone.
"Merry Christmas," it said, sent by Papworth in Newbury, England, to Jarvis at a Christmas party in another part of town. Papworth, then 22, typed the message on a computer keyboard since mobile phones did not have keyboards.
As it turns out, Papworth's claim to texting fame was by chance. He was part of a team working on a technology to improve paging, and was randomly chosen to send the message. He told BBC Radio that the technology had originally been intended for use as an executive pager, so that secretaries could "get hold of their bosses while they were out" and relay messages to them.
6 Billion Served Daily
Now, according to Forrester Research, some 6 billion SMS, or short message service, communications are sent each day, and it's apparent that succeeding generations of humans will evolve thumbs beyond our comprehension.
Texting is the leading form of communication among teens 12-17, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and the median number of texts sent daily by a teen is 60 -- up from 50 in 2009. Rice University has found that, not surprisingly, women use emoticons -- those alphanumerics that are intended to convey an emotion, like ;-) -- more than men, but men use a wider variety.
Verizon Wireless will launch a text-to-911 service early next year, and acceptance of text messaging at emergency call centers is expected to increase. The dangers of distraction from texting have attracted attention, notably texting while driving, which has been banned in nearly 40 states.
Some are questioning -- on the big birthday, no less -- if carrier-based texting is here to stay. According to strategic advisory firm Chetan Sharma, the U.S. may start seeing the kind of decline in carrier-based text messaging that has occurred in other markets. Third quarter of this year saw the first decline in the U.S. of the total number of text messages.
Chetan Sharma attributed the decline to the rise of Wi-Fi-based messaging, which does not incur carrier charges. Messaging apps, such as Apple's iMessage, WhatsApp or Facebook messaging, allow users to communicate without using a telephone carrier's network.
Brad Shimmin, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, said he expects texting "to be around forever," although not necessarily in its carrier-based form. He compared the growth of the Wi-Fi versions to the comparable growth of IP-based phone services like Skype, adding that the lack of Wi-Fi in non-metropolitan areas could eventually represent a stumbling block to non-carrier texting.
Shimmin also pointed out that texting, like many forms of mobile communication, is nowadays sometimes used as a provisional mode. Users can now voice dictate text messages, or, as he does, receive their voice mails as text messages. Texting will be even more commonly seen as a multi-modal communication in the next 20 years, he said, as it continues to evolve from its single-media beginning.
"That's why we don't carry around pagers anymore," he said.