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Don't blame me for txtspk, says sender of first SMS (Q&A)

Neil Papworth, who sent the first text message 20 years ago, never expected the tech to get so epic. The British-born engineer chats with Crave.

What hath God wrought? Neil Papworth sent the first SMS in 1992.
Neil Papworth

Ppl! Txting is 20 yrs old! Thats soo GR8!

Depending on your perspective, you might thank or blame Matti Makkonen, the pioneer of texting, for how it changed human communication.

Just don't shoot the first texter.

Neil Papworth is the British-born engineer who actually sent the first text message, 20 years ago today. Typed out on a PC, it was sent to a Richard Jarvis of Vodafone and read: Merry Christmas.

Papworth was working as an engineer at Sema Group Telecoms, which was developing a Short Message Service Centre (SMSC) for Vodafone UK. It was conceived as a paging service, hardly the mammoth new form of communication it has become. With some 8 trillion texts sent in 2011, SMS has evolved to become a new set of sub-languages.

Papworth's career as a software developer took him around the world, and now he lives in Montreal and works as a software architect for mobile services firm Tekelec. I asked him for some reflections, which he shared over e-mail.

Q: What did it feel like to send the first SMS 20 years ago today?
Feels good! And seems like such a long time ago. Back then that text demonstrated that our software was working correctly. We were very happy that it worked, of course, but we had no idea how big it was going to become.

Many regard Matti Makkonen as the SMS pioneer. What was your role versus his?
Matti is known as the "father of SMS." He can be one of the people credited with its invention. I just SENT the first SMS, and helped implement the software we used to do text messaging.

What were the technical challenges involved in making SMS work? Why did it take so long from concept to your text to an Orbitel phone?
A mobile network is a hostile place! Messages flow from system to system all over the country, and your handset moves from place to place, goes in and out of coverage, and you turn it off. Messages must be queued and delivered in order, and the network has to keep track of you. And when you pop up in another place it needs to know you are available again, and where you are.

From what I remember it was something like a year to develop the SMS system. This was based on the GSM standards, so I think the standards for SMS were perhaps not completely nailed down at first, and the handsets didn't exist to send messages to. Why develop a system to send messages to phones that can't receive them? :-)

Something like 8 trillion texts were sent last year. Did you ever imagine "Merry Christmas" would lead to that?
No, never. I only thought of the testing we were doing at Vodafone, and getting the product working as best we good. I was an engineer, my job was to get the nuts and bolts working!

OMG, r u the guy we can blame for txtspk? And the not so gr8 state of English?
Not me! The limitation of 160 characters was always going to bring out the creative side of people, and that's exactly what it did. Anything that prevented people's thumbs from getting sore is a good thing. And now it's used for IM and e-mail, so it's not just SMS!!!

On a broader level, how has SMS changed the way we communicate and have sext-based relationships?
It's given us an alternative to face-to-face communication. This can be a good thing when you want to send a discreet message and avoid worrying that you're disturbing the recipient by catching them at a bad time with a phone call, but it's also a bad thing sometimes. It's easier to dump someone and not have to deal with the reaction. But really, this is a problem with people's attitude, not with this particular technology. You could just as easily do the same thing via IM or email.

How has SMS changed your life? Do you regret that it wasn't patented?
I continued working with SMS and related applications for almost 20 years, so it certainly kept me busy! On a personal level, it made it so much easier to arrange meetups with friends or check in with family. But I'm a geek, not an entrepreneur, so patenting wouldn't have made any difference to me. :)

What does the future hold for SMS? Will it be around for 20 more years?
I can't see it dying out anytime soon. People in wealthy countries may be favoring IM on their smartphones, but you need an Internet connection and it's not guaranteed all your friends will have the same app you do. In much of the world where the phones and networks are more basic, SMS is simple, quick, reliable, and cheaper than voice communication. And there are ever more ingenious applications -- voting on reality shows, tracking packages, and so on -- that rely on SMS to work.