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160: The story behind text messaging

A long time ago (1985) in a faraway land (Germany) lived a man named Friedhelm Hillebrand. And he had a question: Just how many characters does the average person need to communicate?

Care to guess what the answer was?

Fast foward nearly a quarter-century and you can still see the fruits of Hillebrand's labor. Text messaging is as popular as ever (and often used more on phones than voice calls).

Anyhoo, the L.A. Times has a neat piece on Hillebrand and the birth of text messaging, as well as what the old guy's got up his sleeve next. Check it out.

Why Text Messages are Limited to 160 Characters

Phil is the father of two beautiful girls and is the Dad behind Modern Dad. Before that he spent seven years at the helm of Android Central. Before that he spent a decade in a newsroom of a two-time Pulitzer Prize-finalist newspaper. Before that — well, we don't talk much about those days. Subscribe to the Modern Dad newsletter!

5 Comments
  • I thought it was because of the technical limitation imposed of using the free space in the tower transmission lines (non-data, status/control) or something like that. I read somewhere a bit ago that carriers used this "free" space (both free as in no cost and free as in empty space) for text messages instead of using the actual data connections, hence the 160 character limit; while it cost nothing "additional" to provide the service the carriers are raking in the $$ on charging a lot for something that cost them nothing. Interesting non the less.
  • @MattMojo: That's about what I heart as well.
    However, "free as in no cost" is not really true. It does require capacity in the bases and storage for all the messages that couldn't immediately be sent. Delivering an SMS message costs as much as a phone call which is hung up before the connection's established. Which also isn't completely free of costs, but traditionally financed by other incomes. Generally, it's a bit complicated to name costs for such things, as it consists mostly of fixed costs (install and maintain bases, server parks, software maintenance, ...). An UMTS (or DSL) data connection doesn't really cost that much either, but it takes a bigger share of the (hopefully ;)) existing resources.
  • cool. Although I read as well, that there is no room for error control (re-transmissions / store-and-forward). I consistently have missed sms messages if my phone was rebooting or off totally --- but then again it could be Verizon. Also when I said "free of cost" I really meant to say free of add-on cost --- meaning there is no real overhead added to provide the technical means of transmitting to message -- as the existing infrastructure was already there (both sending and receiving)
  • There's no re-transmission for SMS in Germany either. But messages have to be stored when you cell is off or there's no reception. Over here, that's done for 1 day up to about 2 weeks (most common 5-7 days), depending on the provider and sometimes contract. The message's only deleted from the server when it's been transmitted successfully or at least the phone claimed so. So if you lose reception between receiving and commiting reception, you get the message twice. On the other hand, WM's message handling is so complicated, the phone might crash before the message's saved, but the receipt's already sent...
  • Unicode languages will actually be limited to half of that size, as each char equals 2... If you are in the mood of some more history, click on my name link and head over to a post I wrote about the history of PDA's... ;-)