Back in 1984, sitting in a pizzeria in Copenhagen, Matti Makkonen created the SMS message. He was attending a telecoms conference when the inspiration hit. Last month, Makkonen passed away from an illness. But his legacy will live on. He’s been credited as being the “father of SMS”, but he didn’t like the title and thought it was undeserved. As a Finnish engineer and civil servant, he worked on the GSM standard with many other people. He felt he was just one component of a whole and the result of the combined work was SMS as we know it today.
In an interview with the BBC in 2012 he said,
“I did not consider SMS as a personal achievement but as a result of joint efforts to collect ideas and write the specifications of the services based on them.”
Though many people were involved, Makkonen gave credit to Nokia actually for popularising SMS messaging. If they hadn’t built a phone that allowed people to use the service, then obviously no one would ever have known it existed outside the GSM technical community.
It’s interesting to note that the before-mentioned BBC interview happened by text message on the 20th anniversary of SMS. It was in 1992 when Neil Papworth sent the first text message with the words “Happy Christmas” during a Vodaphone Christmas party. He sent the message from a computer, and it was received on an Orbitel 901. It was the first GSM mobile phone (though you’d likely need a large bag of some sort to carry it around in), now made famous as the first to receive an official SMS message.
Getting back to the interview, the reporter asked Makkonen if he had foreseen how popular SMS would become. But to him, SMS wasn’t a separate thing as we think of it today. It was just another feature bundled up into a “revolutionary mobile communications system.” He went on to add it would be “Very useful for quick business needs”.
Many people who report on SMS messaging and the history involving Makkonen point out he was never compensated for the work he did because he hadn’t patented it. Although it seems many felt he deserved something beyond his civil servant or Nokia salary, he never appeared to share those sentiments. He felt he was one of the first to “understand the need and the concept”, but that he hadn’t developed anything patentable.
The BBC interviewer also asked what Makkonen thought of using txtspk. His reply was a firm “No!” Indeed he preferred to use proper Finnish and as many of the 160 characters as necessary. He also added that he thought language could develop because of the shortened length (many linguists agree).
When asked about his vision for SMS in the future, say another 20 years down the road, he wasn’t very specific. But he did say he felt that “convenient to use text messaging will stay forever.” He also suggested that pay per message would also be a thing of the past. While the interview was only in 2012, many mobile carriers now offer unlimited text messages as part of the standard plans. And with SMS integrated into so many apps for smartphones, many people don’t pay for the messages at all. He may be on to something in terms of how the service will evolve in the future (but for now mobile operators charge SMS service providers, like fastsms, for every message sent. When that changes, it’s likely SMS providers will rethink their pricing models too).
It’s sad that Makkonen won’t be a part of the future of SMS and GSM standards, but the idea he conceived while enjoying pizza over 20 years ago is certainly here to stay.