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SMS text messaging turns 20, but is it in decline?

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The mobile text message has today celebrated 20 years of revolutionising the way people communicate, although there are the first signs that consumers are now falling out of love with short messaging services (SMS).

The first ever text was sent on December 3, 1992, by a 22-year-old British engineer called Neil Papworth, who used his computer to fire off the message "Merry Christmas" to an Orbitel 901 mobile phone.

Text message

© Rex Features / Jonathan Hordle

Mobile phone keys

© Rex Features



SMS, individual messages of 160 characters sent to contacts on mobile devices and computers, pre-dated Twitter as a way to communicate with only a minimum of information.

It gave birth to so-called 'text speak', including time-saving abbreviated messages such as, 'Txt celebr8s its bday', often accompanied by smiley face markers, such as :-).

But SMS also prompted the emergence of some less savoury practices, such as 'sexting', in which people exchange rather racy messages.

The average UK consumer now sends around 50 text messages every week, according to research from media regulator Ofcom, and in 2011 more than 150 billion SMS were sent in the UK, almost triple the amount sent five years previously (in 2006, there were 51bn sent).

However, SMS is also now starting to show levels of decline, as people increasingly turn to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter for their digital communications.

The first half of 2012 saw two quarterly declines in the volume of SMS messages sent in the UK - there were 39.1 billion sent in the first quarter, and 38.5bn in the second quarter, down from 39.7 billion in final three months of 2011.

Ofcom believes that this decline may be down to people using alternative forms of text-based communications, such as instant messaging and social networking sites.

It feels that this trend has been accelerated as more people now own internet-connected devices, such as smartphones and tablets, making it easier to use web-based communications services on the go.

Man with a mobile phone

© Rex Features / Image Broker

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Mobile texting remains the most prolific among 12- to 15-year-olds, who are sending an average of 193 texts every week, almost four times as much as the UK average. This has also more than doubled from 12 months ago, when just 91 were sent by this group.

SMS also remains the popular way to stay in contact. More people text friends and family on a daily basis than talk face-to-face, according to Ofcom, and teenagers and young adults are leading these changes.

Ofcom's Communications Market Report 2012 states that 90% of 16- to 24-year-olds text on a daily basis to communicate with others. By contrast, only 67% of that group make mobile calls on a daily basis, and 63% talk face-to-face.

Girls (12-15 year olds) text 35% more than boys, at an average of 221 messages a week, compared to 164 a week for boys of the same age.

The average 8- to 11-year-old sends 41 texts each week, almost double the number (23) they sent in 2011, suggesting that there is still a place for the humble text with the new generations, despite the rise of social networking.

Ofcom's director of research James Thickett said that texting was seen as "nothing more than a niche service" when it was first conceived.

"But texts have now surpassed traditional phone calls and meeting face-to-face as the most frequent way of keeping in touch for UK adults, revolutionising the way we socialise, work and network," he said.

"For the first time in the history of mobile phones, SMS volumes are showing signs of decline. However the availability of a wider range of communications tools like instant messaging and social networking sites, mean that people might be sending fewer SMS messages, but they are 'texting' more than ever before."

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