text messaging (texting or wireless messaging)

What is text messaging?

Text messaging is the act of sending short, alphanumeric communications between cellphones, pagers or other hand-held devices, as implemented by a wireless carrier.

Best known and most popular on wireless cellular wide-area networks, text messaging has numerous applications, from casual consumer-to-consumer communications to information services and alerts, notifications, premium paid services, e-commerce, mobile marketing, healthcare, security, and more.

Texting is one alternative in a larger universe of messaging modalities, including email, instant messaging and messaging within social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. However, texting is differentiated by its broad carrier, platform and device support; simplicity and ease of use; global availability; and cultural pervasiveness.

How text messaging works

Users send messages through SMS (short message service) or from a computer to a hand-held device. Web texting is made possible by websites called SMS gateways.

SMS has an inherent 160-character-per-message limitation, but most contemporary SMS clients can automatically and transparently work around this artifact. A broadcast capability that enables multiple client devices to receive the same message simultaneously is also included in SMS standards. Gateway capabilities enable the transparent interchange of SMS messages between carriers and other messaging modalities.

History of text messaging

Texting can trace its history back to teletypewriter messaging services, such as TWX and Telex, in the early 1930s. Text-only and numeric-only wireless paging systems, which originally appeared in the 1980s and evolved into two-way services in the 1990s, were popular in consumer and business messaging applications before being almost entirely replaced by texting services on cellular wireless networks.

Neil Papworth, an engineer for Airwide Solutions, sent the first text message via SMS in December 1992. He sent the message "Merry Christmas" from his computer to a cellphone over the Vodafone network in the United Kingdom.

The inclusion of texting as a service within Signaling System 7, which underpins the implementation of contemporary wired and wireless telephony systems, enabled texting to be integrated into cellular services. This began with analog 1G networks, but built significant interest with the development of 2G digital systems, particularly the Global System for Mobile Communications.

Early cellular pricing policies from many carriers encouraged users to text in place of a voice call, but with the advent of unlimited voice plans that also included texting, many cellular users began to take advantage of the convenience of texting. Cellular texting is formally embodied as SMS.

Texting has affected culture by introducing new vocabulary, such as abbreviations like "RU" in place of "are you" and pictographic symbols known as emojis in place of specific words and phrases. Both techniques compensate for message length and text entry limitations.

Another social effect from texting relates to physical safety. Texting while driving is regulated by laws in some locales. Even texting while walking or performing other physical activities can result in injury or worse.

Text messaging features

Smartphones enhance the texting experience with a physical or virtual keyboard, making the entry of text more efficient than it was on the alphanumeric telephone keypad.

From SMS evolved two successors, Enhanced Messaging Service (EMS) and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS). EMS added the ability to handle specialty formatting and character sets, download ringtones and transmit images. MMS, which forms the basis of most contemporary texting services, quickly replaced EMS. MMS includes video support, eliminating the previous 160-character limit for individual messages.

This was last updated in April 2023

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