Twenty years of texting – what comes next?

Happy birthday to the humble SMS! That’s right, the text message turned twenty on 3rd December – the date on which in 1992, engineer Neil Papworth used his computer to text “Merry Christmas” to an Orbitel 901 handset.

Since its conception, texting has developed from a coded language mostly adopted by teenagers and techno wizards (remember the days of gr8 and l8r?) to a communication method that is now more common than a phone call. In fact, The Communications Market Report 2012, conducted by independent regulator Ofcom, showed that texting is the most popular way to keep in touch in the UK, with the average UK consumer sending around 50 messages every week.

“When texting was first conceived, many saw it as nothing more than a niche service, 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,” explains James Thickett, Director of Research at Ofcom.

However, having enjoyed a progressive 20 year reign at the top of the communication charts, it seems that texting may have reached its peak of popularity, and statistics suggest that it could be heading for a decline – during the first 6 months of 2012 alone, texting volumes fell from 39.4 billion to 38.5 billion. Whilst the numbers of texts being sent are still significant, the fact that the figures are going down rather than up indicates that texting may no longer be the nation’s messaging method of choice.

Is the future social?

Many industry experts have attributed the decrease in the amount of texts being sent with the increase in the number of people utilising social media for their communication needs. More and more people across the country are in possession of smartphones and tablets: there are actually more smartphones in the UK than there are people, and tablet sales are growing 378% year upon year. This wide reaching availability is making it easier for the public to access social platforms at the click of a button.

“The availability of a wider range of communication tools like instant messaging and social networking sites mean that people might be sending fewer SMS messages,” Thickett concedes, “but they are ‘texting’ more than ever before.”

‘Texting’ in some way they may be, but social media has three clear benefits over the conventional sense of the word:

  • It’s free!
    Although many smartphone users get their messages as part of a contract, they are still paying monthly for the privilege of being able to send them. Social media is free to join and free to use, meaning that users who top up their phones could be saving themselves cash by tweeting or Facebook messaging their friends instead.
  • It can be used on multiple devices
    Texting is only really available through phones, whereas social media can be accessed on smartphones, tablets, desktop PCs, laptops, and a whole host of other interactive devices, making it more convenient for busy users who may not always have their phone to hand.
  • It’s, well, social…
    Sites like Facebook and Twitter allow instant interaction with multiple users, in a much more engaging manner than a simple group text. Members of the conversation can share links, images, text and more in a matter of seconds, with customisable profile pictures to aid that social vibe.

There is little doubt that texting will continue to be a useful communication medium for many years to come, but it is likely that it will be used less and less as social media becomes more and more prevalent – and with 100,000 tweets and 684,478 pieces of Facebook content being shared every minute, the social media invasion is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.