Technology

Texting SMS pioneer Matti Makkonen twenty years on

Leo Kelion question I know you're not keen on interviews but given it's the SMS's 20th anniversary would you at least consider talking to me by text? Matti Makkonen: words Ok, we can do it :) You have chosen an interesting method.

In a world first, on 3 December 1992, an engineer sent the message "Merry Christmas" from a PC to a mobile device using Vodafone's UK network.

But the origins of the idea date back further to Matti Makkonen. Over a pizza at a telecoms conference in 1984, the former Finnish civil servant put forward the idea of a mobile phone messaging service. This was to become the SMS (short message service) standard.

Dubbed the "father of SMS"- a title he dislikes because of the work others did to develop the technology - Matti Makkonen rarely gives interviews. However, he made an exception for the BBC's tech team with an interview via SMS.

The SMS interview below has been formatted for mobile phones, the full version can be found here.

It's been estimated 8 trillion text messages were sent last year. 20yrs ago how popular did you think sms would get and what did you think it would be used for?

20yrs ago I didn't see sms as separate issue - it was just a feature in the revolutionary mobile communications system. Very useful for quick business needs.

You never got any money for it as you didn't patent the idea. Is that a regret - or are you glad how things worked out?

I dont think I made a patentable innovation, but was one of the early persons to understand the need and the concept. I'm glad the work was done as part of GSM.

You've been described as the "reluctant father of SMS" and it took a newspaper investigation to identify you. Why were you so quiet about your achievement?

I did not consider sms as personal achievement but as result of joint effort to collect ideas and write the specifications of the services based on them.

Cn u txtspk?

No! My passion is to write correct language (Finnish), using all 160 characters.

What do you think of people who do? Do you hate it?

No, I don't hate them. Actually sms can also be seen as a way for language to develop. More symbols, less characters.

What do you make of sexting? A lot of high profile figures have come to regret some of their more explicit messages!?!

In my mind private messages of high profile persons should be kept out of public discussion. Privacy belongs to telecommunication as much as to private letters.

Do you suffer from text spam? If so what kind?

Not at all. Finnish legislation is quite protective. Marketing messages are allowed only if you really allow them. Spam calls are more often problem.

Do you prefer typing in a keypad or touchscreen? And how fast are you?

I love touchscreen. Slow enough to think and sometimes even edit what I write.

Will sms survive another 20 years - or will Facebook, Skype and other instant messaging chat systems take over?

20 years is long timeā€¦ I believe that reliable convenient to use text messaging will stay forever. Is not necessary what we call sms. No more pay per message.

It was 8 years between your idea of SMS and the first text being sent. Were you surprised it took so long?

No. Actually I felt myself as a customer, who had noticed a need. I was happy to see that the development was going on in a gsm working team. The real launch of the service, as I see it, was when Nokia introduced the first phone that enabled easy writing of messages (Nokia 2010 in 1994).

Do you have any other big ideas for the future!?!

Not my idea but integration of mobile content display to my eyeglasses would be nice. Maybe someone is working with it?

More on this story