What is SMS?

What is SMS?

Odds are you’ve sent or received a text message today. Probably even in the last hour. If so, you’re not alone – as of June 2021, smartphones are now used by 3.95 billion people worldwide.

This life-changing tech is now such a popular platform that users have generated a new language so they can squeeze more into a single SMS.

It wasn’t instant magic; the idea for SMS was once a twinkle in an engineer’s eye. The tool we now know and love has a story longer than its short form fame. Here’s some insight into what it is, how it came about, and how it continues to add value.

What is SMS messaging?

SMS stands for ‘Short Message Service.’ These little communiqués we send from our mobile phones are now all-pervasive. They’re distinctive from their web-based messaging cousins in that they don’t rely on an internet connection, just your cell signal.

The short part refers to the cap of 160 characters, but we all know you can always text in parts if you’ve got a lot to say. MMS or Multimedia Messaging Service is an extension of SMS – this type of text allows visuals in the form of photo, video, song, meme or GIF. Technically, MMS gives you a 1,000 character limit, but it’s best to stay under 320 characters because long copy reduces the visibility of your multimedia file.

The history of SMS

SMS is so pervasive, it’s hard not to take it for granted. But like all life-changing developments, there’s a story behind its rise to ubiquity.

In 1984, German engineer Friedhelm Hillebrand, who was Chairman of the non-voice services committee for the Global System for Mobile Communications Standard at the time, set out to determine the optimum length for text messages. By typing hundreds of random questions and sentences on his typewriter, then counting all the letters, numbers and spaces, he found the average of all his entries came to 160 characters or less for a sufficient message.

We now know 160 characters is a carrier limit; the amount of data that fits easily within bandwidth limits for phones.

So who sent the first SMS? The inaugural text was sent in 1992 by British developer and test engineer, Neil Papworth, to his colleague, Richard Jarvis.

What was this revolutionary message? A simple ‘Merry Christmas.’

At the time, Neil was working on creating a Short Message Service for Vodafone. But he didn’t send his groundbreaking text from a phone (they had no keyboard back then), he sent it from his PC.

With this now-famous season’s greeting, SMS became a reality.

In the same year, Nokia introduced the first mobile capable of sending texts between two users on the same network. Messages were sent via the multi-tap method where each number on the phone correlates to 3-4 letters. For example, the number 1 = AB and C – remember that?

Three years later, in 1995, the T9 system, which stands for ‘text on 9 keys,' was invented by Tegic co-founder, Cliff Kushler. It used predictive text tech to bring up words from a single key.

The same company then debuted the Nokia 9000i Communicator in 1997, complete with a QWERTY keyboard. Hurrah!

In 1999, after another two years, people were able to send texts across networks, and from then, SMS went gangbusters.

Now in 2022, SMS turns 30 years old.

SMS in context

So how does SMS messaging compare with other communication channels? For a start, the CTR for SMS is 9.18% higher than any other digital channel. And if you’ve got an offer for your customers, 75% of them are open to receiving it via SMS.


Another key communication platform is email. Like SMS, this is a cost-effective and versatile medium where quality content is everything. Personalised, interactive and mobile optimised is best.

The overall average open rate for email marketing is 16.97%, with a 10.29% CTR. Compare this with SMS which has a 98% open rate and a CTR of 10%.


As SMS has risen to fame, so have apps. In 2020, the average smartphone user had 40 apps installed on their phone. What would lockdown have looked like without Zoom? WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok?

Mobile apps have changed how we listen to music, shop for new shoes, order dinner, book tickets and chat with friends. They’re also on the increase, expected to generate $935 billion by 2023.

In comparison with apps, SMS still has the upper hand in that you can reach users any time, even if they’re not logged into the app or connected to the internet. All you need is their number and permission.

The fact remains – SMS is an amazing tool, specifically for businesses.

SMS reigns supreme

SMS is now a cornerstone of communication. Even though it’s short n’ sweet, it’s immediate, direct, and keeps the thread of connection alive.

For businesses, SMS is an excellent avenue for alerts and appointment reminders. With cracking click-through rates, SMS marketing is now a must, and with message personalisation, the opportunities are endless.

If you’re interested in Business SMS or bulk SMS sending, all roads lead to Burst SMS.

Now 30 years old, SMS has changed the game for both businesses and personal communication.
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