03. 12. 2022

30 Years of Texting Thanks to the Orbitel 901

by Ben Wood

On 3 December 1992, the first text message using the Short Message Service (SMS) was officially sent from a computer terminal in Reading, UK by an engineer at Sema Group Telecoms. It was received on an Orbitel 901 mobile phone by Richard Jarvis, the Engineering Director at Vodafone’s value-added services subsidiary Vodata. The message consisted of two words: “Merry Christmas”. It was sent to show off this unique new service to the CEO of Vodafone at a Christmas drinks gathering.

Orbitel 901 Front Mpmbrand Black

Forming part of the GSM 2G cellular standard, the SMS was envisaged as a secondary service for operators to send update messages of up to 160 characters to customers. When the standard was first launched, handset manufacturers didn’t include proper keypads because mobiles were regarded as only being used to make telephone calls and receive messages. At the time, text messaging was synonymous with pagers, so the idea that you could receive and send messages on a mobile phone was like something from a science fiction film.

However, the technology quickly caught on, and over the years we’ve increasingly seen a transition in the way we interact with a mobile phone — from voice to visual. Gone are the days when the default use of a phone was to hold it to your ear. Most people now spend more time looking at their mobile phones than talking into them. SMS was the catalyst for this transition.

Video from Vodafone UK showcasing the Museum's Orbitel 901

Working at Vodafone around 1994, I remember doing training on how to send and receive text messages using a Nokia 2110. People would give me a look of incredulity when I explained that to send my name as a text message I’d have to press the number 2 key twice, followed by a further two presses on both the 3 key and the 6 key — just to create three letters B - E - N on the phone’s screen. Before long people were getting so fast at texting on phones that they could pretty much touch-type on a numeric keypad. Phone makers were also starting to introduce innovative solutions to aid texting such as the Ericsson Chatboard and the Nokia 6800.Nokia 6800 OpenWe’ve now reached a point where people take text messaging on mobile phones for granted when they use services like WhatsApp that handle over 100 billion messages per day.

Over time, SMS text messages have largely been usurped by other messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Apple’s iMessage, WeChat, and others but the technology that started it all still has an important role as a reliable and robust basic messaging service. In the modern era, many people get texts with messages to authenticate an online purchase or confirm a login as it’s the lowest common denominator when it comes to sending a message and it’s still super reliable.

Not bad for a service that is now 30 years old, and was never intended to be used for person-to-person communications.