History of the 160 Character Text Message

I’ve nev­er giv­en much thought to this, and maybe that’s a sign of how well it was designed and imple­men­ted: the his­tory and (high-level) tech­nic­al devel­op­ment of  text mes­saging.

Would the 160-char­ac­ter max­im­um be enough space to prove a use­ful form of com­mu­nic­a­tion? Hav­ing zero mar­ket research, [the research com­mit­ee] based their ini­tial assump­tions on two “con­vin­cing argu­ments”:

For one, they found that post­cards often con­tained few­er than 150 char­ac­ters.

Second, they ana­lyzed a set of mes­sages sent through Tel­ex, a then-pre­val­ent tele­graphy net­work for busi­ness pro­fes­sion­als. Des­pite not hav­ing a tech­nic­al lim­it­a­tion, Hil­l­eb­rand said, Tel­ex trans­mis­sions were usu­ally about the same length as post­cards. […]

[Fried­helm Hil­l­eb­rand, the ‘fath­er of text mes­saging’,] had an argu­ment with a friend about wheth­er 160 char­ac­ters provided enough space to com­mu­nic­ate most thoughts. “My friend said this was impossible for the mass mar­ket,” Hil­l­eb­rand said. “I was more optim­ist­ic.“ 

Nowadays, with the ubi­quity of text mess­ging and ser­vices such as Twit­ter I feel that there is little doubt that 160 char­ac­ters is enough to get across all but the most com­plex or import­ant mes­sages.

2 thoughts on “History of the 160 Character Text Message

  1. Drew Neil

    Fun­nily enough, since SMS became main­stream, I have found it much easi­er to com­pose a mes­sage for a post­card!

  2. Paul

    The earli­est mass-pro­duced mobile email device was NTT Doco­mo’s i‑mode phone launched in Japan in late 1998. It too had a 150 char­ac­ter lim­it. I remem­ber my friends get­ting very frus­trated with the length of my mes­sages and my insist­ence that they keep their points brief in their replies.

    Over 10 years later, what goes around, comes around.

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