20 years ago last Monday, Neil Papworth sent a text message to one, Richard Jarvis of Vodafone. The message read simply: "Merry Christmas," though Papworth’s reasons for sending it were not wholly seasonal in nature. He was working at the time as a junior engineer for Sema Group Telecoms, and Vodafone was his customer, for whom Sema was building one of the world’s first SMSCs (Short Message Service Centre).
One fact that is often overlooked is that Papworth’s text was sent, not from a phone, but from a PC.
“Mobile phones didn’t have alphanumeric keypads in those days,” Papworth explains. This partly explains why the engineer didn’t receive a reply to his message.
“I didn’t get a reply, and in fact, I didn’t even speak to Richard Jarvis until 15 years later,” he says. “I always tell people that to me, he wasn’t some faceless person, he wasn’t even a person; he was just a phone number. All I really remember about that first text is a sense of relief when we heard it had worked.”
Papworth says he has no insight into what Vodafone’s expectations were for text messaging at the time.
“I was just a junior engineer starting out on my career and feeling a little bit intimated about my role in making this work,” he says. “I was more focused on bits and bytes than the commercial world, but we all realised that this was hugely significant for Vodafone, as it was the first commercial text message ever sent.”
Text messaging went live on the Vodafone network the following year, and the rest, of course, is history. According to Portio Research, 7.8 trillion SMS messages were sent in 2011, and the forecast for this year is 9.6 trillion. SMS revenues are forecast to break the $150bn (£94bn) mark for the first time next year.
For his part, Papworth has stayed in the industry. He spent the next few years from 1992 onwards travelling the world as a Sema engineer, installing more SMSCs, and today, he works for Tecelec in Montreal on diameter signalling routers, subscriber data management, and other tecchie stuff of which mobile network infrastructure is made.
And now that text messaging’s 20th anniversary has been and gone, and all the fuss and interviews are done and dusted, he can get back to the day job. For another five years at least…