What is SMS? Definition and examples

SMS stands for Short Message Service. People with mobile phones can send and receive text messages using the service. It also works on some landlines.

SMS messages, or texts, travel on the cellular network. In contrast, messages sent via apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp use Internet protocols.

SMS stands for Short Message Service - image
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A standard SMS message can have up to 160 alphanumeric characters. If a text exceeds this limit, the technology breaks it up into separate messages.

Popularity of SMS

Text messaging via SMS has many uses. Examples include:

  • Communicating with friends and colleagues.
  • Voting and taking part in live TV shows and competitions.
  • Doctors and dentists sending appointment reminders.
  • News services sending score updates to sports fans.
  • Banks sending one-time passcodes to permit access to Internet banking.

Compared with messaging apps, SMS is the least secure messaging technology. Apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat use encryption whereas SMS does not. Encrypted messages cannot be read by the messaging service or anyone who intercepts them.

Yet, in spite of the growth of messaging apps, texting remains popular and is the most widespread messaging service. Apps, in this context, stands for applications.

According to the business text messaging service Text Magic, more than 15 million texts are sent every minute worldwide. They also estimate that 4.2 billion people use this form of messaging.

Origins of SMS

Engineer Stephen Temple was in the team at the forefront of the mobile revolution in the 1980s. He writes that during that decade, “the world was awash with people having ideas about mobile messaging.”

Temple has traced the origin of SMS to a 1984 document about French-German research and development trials.

That document highlighted a need for a message service for mobile users. It called for a service that would not only carry short alphanumeric messages, but also have “acknowledgement capabilities.”

Formulating the concept – and then working out the technical standards – began in 1985. The 2010 Wiley book “Short Message Service (SMS): The Creation of Personal Global Text Messaging” tells the story of the past, present, and future of the service.

The book explains how SMS became part of the second-generation cellular phone system known as Global System for Mobile (GSM) communications.

The GSM developers faced several challenges in incorporating the short messaging service. One of these was how to deal with messages that cannot be delivered because the receiver’s mobile is switched off. The solution was a “store-and-forward” approach.

Different to MMS

Multimedia messaging (MMS) is not the same as SMS. MMS extends the protocols of the texting service to allow the sending and receiving of media files. These files include images, audio and video clips, and gifs. In addition, networks usually allow their MMS messages to have more characters than text-only messages.

However, the technology for multimedia messaging is not as widespread as that of text-only messaging.

Mobile users should be aware that the cost of sending MMS messages is likely to be more expensive than for text messaging.