Mobiles and texting through the ages

Mobile phones are everywhere. Studies show that 93 per cent of adults in the UK personally own or regularly use one, and the average person checks theirs 50 times a day. As such, it’s pretty easy to take them for granted, but the journey to where we are now has been long and eventful.

It also started a bit earlier than you might think.

1970s: The early, early days

Although plenty of thought had already been given to the portable phone concept, the ball only really started rolling in April 1973 when then-Motorola engineer Martin Cooper used a prototype of his company’s DynaTAC handset to make the first ever publicised mobile phone call. At the other end of the line was one of Cooper’s chief competitors, Bell Labs’ Dr Joel S. Engel, who heard the words “Joel, this is Marty. I’m calling you from a cell phone, a real handheld portable cell phone.”

While this breakthrough call was made in the United States, it was Japan that capitalised by launching the first cellular service. The network, operated by the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT), worked only in Tokyo initially but had reached the rest of the country within five years.

1980s: Europe stakes its claim

Just two years after the big breakthrough in Japan, engineers in Scandinavia launched the cellular Nordic Mobile Telephone (MNT) system across Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland – marking the start of Europe’s mobile revolution.

The UK followed pretty quickly, with the country’s only two operators, Vodafone and Cellnet, joining forces to roll out their own Total Access Communication System (ETACS) cellular network. Similar set-ups soon started to pop up across the rest of Europe.

That’s not to say things weren’t still moving forward back in America, though. In 1983, a whole decade after using it to make the first ever call, Motorola finally released the DynaTAC (an abbreviation of “Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage”) to consumers. It took ten hours of charge to get just 30 minutes of talk-time from the device. The price: almost $4,000.

With most people still getting used to the idea of mobile calls, Matti Makkonen was thinking ahead. In 1984, the Finnish engineer informally pitched the idea of a personal text-based communication technology to friends over dinner at a Copenhagen telecoms conference. Another engineer, German Friedhelm Hillebrand, then conducted experiments to determine the ideal length of a text message. He settled on 160 characters.

1990-1995: Making strides

The early 1990s was an extremely exciting time for those in the mobile sector. With the basic technologies now in place, manufacturers could start to make some real progress.

The first major milestone was undoubtedly the advent of the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) standard, which replaced the ETACS platform. 2G, as it would be known, eventually became the default. Today, it has a 90 per cent market share, operating in more than 200 countries and territories.

Until this point, everything had been rather business-focused; after all, few people could afford the huge sums attached to most devices. Motorola noticed this consumer-shaped gap in the market and, in 1992, launched the Personal Phone – a device aimed at the average person, with a more reasonable price of £250.

In the same year, British software architect Neil Papworth sent the first ever text message. Little did the 22-year-old know, it would be the first of trillions, with SMS eventually becoming the default communication platform for a whole generation. Commenting on the breakthrough, he said: “Initially the idea was for them to use it essentially as a paging service – no-one had any idea how gigantic the texting phenomenon would become.”

The foundations had certainly been laid, but in Matti Makkonen’s eyes, it wasn’t until his former employer Nokia released its 2010 handset two years later that the texting revolution really got going. The device was the first to list SMS as one of its primary features, and made it much easier for users to send and read messages. It then wasn’t long before Vodafone started utilising SMS in a whole different way, launching an alert system to inform subscribers of share price changes; mass messaging was born.

The first half of the decade was brought to a close with the advent of the Tegic system. More commonly known as ‘T9’, this technology was capable of guessing what the user would type next. The result was (in theory) maximum texting efficiency and fewer spelling errors.

1996-1999: The consumer in the spotlight

Towards the end of the 1990s, those at the forefront of the industry focused on making the whole mobile experience a lot easier and more enjoyable for the average user. This started in 1997 with Siemens’ introduction of the basic colour screen, and continued when Nokia added a QWERTY keyboard to its 9000i Communicator handset – paving the way for the computer/phone hybrid we’re all so used to now.

Before the end of the year, British operator One2One revolutionised the consumer side of the industry by launching the first ever ‘pay-as-you-go’ tariff, giving mobile users the opportunity to top up their phones as and when they needed to use them. While lower costs have brought most people back to all-inclusive contracts now, at the time it was hugely popular and a number of competing services quickly followed suit.

In 1999, the SMS shackles were removed, with users able to send messages across networks for the first time. The texting revolution began in earnest, with reports showing users sent, on average, 35 messages a month by 2000.

The 2000s: A decade of breakthroughs

Textlocal is born!

It was in 2005 that Alastair Shortland planted the Textlocal seed, launching the company as a modest bedroom start-up. His goal was to help the business world realise the true potential of mass messaging; there’s no doubt that this has been achieved.

Messages might have still been limited to 160 characters of text, but by 2002, mobile phone users in the UK were able to send more than just words. It was then that Sony Ericsson (formerly just Ericsson) paired with T-Mobile (formerly One2One, now EE) to launch the first Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS). This allowed people to add images and audio to their communications. At first, only those with the manufacturer’s T68i handset could get involved, and they were required to use a separate plug-in camera to capture the images. As manufacturers started to build the appropriate hardware into their releases, however, the trend picked up some pace.

In the meantime, SMS usage had reached impressive new heights, with stats showing that 250 billion messages were being sent every 12 months during the early 2000s.

In a bid to offer a faster, more reliable service, Three unveiled the first commercial 3G mobile network in 2003. At first, it was available on just three handsets, although the technology quickly spread, paving the way for SMS to become consumers’ communication method of choice.

At this point, most people’s idea of a mobile phone would be a small screen with a conventional numeric keypad below it – the traditional ‘candybar’ design, as it was known. This is perhaps why the introduction of the first iPhone, with its shiny touchscreen, was such a big deal. During the product’s big launch, as part of a 2007 keynote, Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs claimed his company was “re-inventing the phone”. He was right; as well as spawning a host of clones, it found its way into more than six million people’s pockets.

Perhaps due to the arrival of the first proper ‘smartphone’, the consumer world’s mobile love affair was reignited. By the end of 2007, figures showed that SMS had overtaken calling as the preferred choice of communication among Americans. Even Barack Obama was getting involved; the soon-to-be president chose to announce the appointment of Joe Biden as his vice-presidential running mate via SMS.

2010 and beyond: The later years


Textlocal’s user-base breaks the 100,000 barrier

By 2010, 200,000 text messages were being sent worldwide every minute, and SMS was later revealed by Ofcom to be the most-used method of daily communication among friends and families. The regulator found that 58 per cent of adults were sending at least one message a day in 2012.

This is part of the reason SMS marketing is so effective, and explains how, after ten years of hard work, Textlocal is still helping so many businesses communicate with their target audiences. In fact, as we approach our big birthday, we’re helping more than 165,000 businesses send over 40 million messages every month. Our own Messenger platform, which has been with us since the very beginning, also sent its one billionth message just last year.

Here’s to another decade of new mobile technologies and SMS marketing success at Textlocal!