SMS-ing has caught the fancy of teens as well as senior citizens. It isn’t an elaborate form of communication, but that perhaps explains its popularity and why it has survived for two decades

A cute stock story is told at Ability Foundation, an NGO that raises disability issues. Years ago, cellphone marketing executives met Director Jayshree Raveendran to promote a new app. “You can text your messages on the phone,” they offered. The director was thrilled. “This would be a boon for people who're hearing-and-speech impaired,” she said. Prescient. Text-messaging opened a world of communication to the hearing-impaired.

Interestingly, the first text message was sent by software engineer Neil Papworth on December 3 (Disability Day) in 1992. Mobile phones hadn't added a keyboard so the simple message — “Merry Christmas”, typed on a PC, appeared on Vodafone director Richard Jarvis' Orbitel 901 cellphone screen. In seven years, that festive greeting took off, to spawn SMS-ish, a form of language that goes LOL to trunc8ed spellings and acronyms — most of which are universally understood. English teachers may object, but there is no stopping the pay-as-you-go tech app that has made communication accessible to everyone.

Pluses and minuses

Texting has been hailed for its noise-free communication, crispness of message, compatibility with all mobile phones and as a door for politeness (text and then call). Equally, it has been pilloried for poor manners (texting while talking face-to-face), death of proper conversation, sore thumbs. Texting has lived through it all, it is 20 years old.

In these two decades, SMS-ing has captured the nimble fingers of teens, caught the imagination of arthritic-knuckled senior citizens. It isn't an elaborate form of communication, but that's why it's widespread, right? Acision says 92 per cent of smartphone users prefer texting to speaking. Almost 75 per cent of them said they would be lost without text. An Ofcom study found text messaging ahead of phoning and face-to-face contact in the most-used-method-of-daily-communication race. Some 4 billion people punch in 8 trillion SMS-es — to talk to family and friends, conclude biz deals, complain officially and dump partners. There is now text poetry, text adverts, text prayers (dad@hvn, 4giv r sins) and an entire generation that’s SMS savvy. There are text watchdogs, ready to fine people over spam texts.

Texting does away with two major language skills — listening and speaking. Many worry this would create problems with reading, writing and spelling in school children. But believe it — Coventry University scientists say children who are fluent at text messaging have better literacy skills. Psychologist Clare Wood, who led the study, says text-speak helps, rather than hinders, development of children's reading and writing skills, by increasing their phonological awareness.

So where does it go from here? Some say text messaging has peaked. It can only go slowing down, as we move to smartphones, and third-party messaging tools to by-pass the 200-message cap. With services like Apple’s iMessage, Facebook messages, GroupMe and WhatsApp, we can send texts over Wi-Fi or cellular networks without paying per-message. Media regulator Ofcom points out that instant messaging and social-networking have shot down SMS numbers in the U.K. and the U.S. But smartphones account for 50 per cent of cellphones, so text-messaging isn't going away for now.

About its success in bringing misery, there is total agreement. Ask cricketer Kevin Pietersen. Or Maria Pestrikoff, Alaska, who walked off a cliff thumbing a message. Or passengers of the LA train whose driver got busy texting. Cyber bullying, sexting, road accidents caused by texting drivers and pedestrians are all part of the package. Messaging allows criminals to communicate freely, till tracked by police through “stealth SMS” (non-visible messages). Text-messages have played lipstick on the collar when intercepted by the affected party. According to BBC News, Neuroscientist Dr Paul Howard-Jones has evidence that night-time texting disturbs secretion of melatonin which regulates the sleep cycle. So you text...

Papworth developed SMS as a clever means to send simple messages among staff members of the Vodofone Centre. He is now happy that innovative applications rely on text-messaging — “voting on reality shows, tracking vehicles/packages, telling when a plane has landed.” In a message to Observer he said, “IMHO, SMS is still the GR8ST :-)”.

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